Bryan Stevenson: Reflections on Justice, Mercy and Mass Incarceration

"Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done." Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is lifting his voice to end the silence about America's mass incarceration crisis. This visionary leader is committed to reforming the criminal justice system and building a more just society. Mr. Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). EJI is a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.

I attended Mr. Stevenson's lecture at the Westminster Town Hall Forum where I learned about his vision for justice and how I could play a role in leading social change. Bryan Stevenson opened his remarks by raising a compelling question: "What should we be doing to create greater justice?" This is a call to action for each us to critically examine the realities of mass incarceration and the related impact on our Nation's future.

The U.S. prison population has grown from 300,000 about 40 years ago to 2.3 million today. The United States has only five percent of the world's population and twenty five percent of the world's prison population. There are 65 million people who have a criminal record. Stevenson also discussed the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction which include felon disenfranchisement. In Stevenson's home state of Alabama, once convicted of a felony, you are banned from ever voting again. Stevenson warns these are "bleak and dismal statistics." The type of statistics that should cause us to wonder: what's going on?

"Yet there is an appalling silence about what over incarceration and excessive punishment is doing to our community," Stevenson stated. This silence must be broken since "we all need mercy, we all need justice, and- perhaps- we all need some measure of unmerited grace," writes Stevenson in his soul-stirring memoir, Just Mercy. Now, is the time to lift our voices for justice and mercy. According to Stevenson, this begins by addressing proximity. We can no longer afford to create a great distance between ourselves and the poor, vulnerable, and incarcerated. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that our lives are interrelated. "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be..." according to King. We must move closer to the issues at hand by becoming informed and engaged about criminal justice reform.

Stevenson further challenged the audience to move from the status quo by doing uncomfortable things. This a challenge to get out of our comfort zones and address the reality of injustice experienced by far too many in our community. By lifting our voices, we can create and manifest change in laws, policies, and practices.

Bryan Stevenson demonstrates leadership by not just simply espousing his vision of justice. He lives out this vision each day as he represents clients and advances policy reform. One such example is the 2010 case where Stevenson and the EJI team argued before the U.S Supreme Court to end the sentencing of children to mandatory life sentences without parole. In this historic case, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed life without parole sentences for juveniles as unconstitutional. This is one victory on the pathway to justice. However, Stevenson recognizes that there is still work to do so long as injustice exists. "Bryan Stevenson is America's young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all," according to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Like his predecessor, there is a long walk to freedom ahead of him. With each step, Bryan Stevenson is bringing us closer to a more just society where equal justice under the law prevails.