I had jury duty for the first time about five years ago. Initially, I was irritated when the summons arrived in the mail. I was preparing to move out of state and the timing could not have been worse. But then I figured it was part of my patriotic duty to serve and crossed my fingers it would only last one day.
In the end, I was picked as a juror for a personal injury case. Though I’d studied 12 Angry Men in high school English, though I’d studied the criminal justice system from many angles as a sociology major and subsequent Master of Social Work, I learned a lot by actually being on a jury. The twelve of us, more men than women, heard the same testimony but we all brought our different backgrounds and vantage points to the table. I was glad I could weigh in with my perspective. I believe justice was served.
Yet because of my studies and my previous career in social work, I know justice is not served as often as we want to believe. Or, to put it another way, justice is more likely to be served if you’re white or if you’re rich. This is something many of us (white people) like to overlook.
The justice system is broken.
Nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than in this month’s powerful selection Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. This is a book I wish everyone would read. It’s a game-changer.
Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)in Alabama almost the minute he received his law degree. He shares how EJI came to be and what becomes of their clients. EJI serves the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized. They help those who did not receive justice in the court of law. They seek freedom for the innocent men and women on death row. They advocate on behalf of the mentally ill behind bars. They ask for mercy on behalf of children who are punished more than their crimes warrant.
While Stevenson bases his practice in Alabama, he has served clients all over the United States. The book centers on the US justice system, but you need not be American to relate to these struggles. No country has successfully managed to eradicate crime and ensure true justice was served in the process.
As you read, you will find countless examples of injustice but you will also encounter stories of hope. It may be very eye opening in certain parts. I encourage you to pay close attention to how this makes you feel. Angry? Helpless? Looking for more of the story? Ready to rationalize? Hopeful? Maybe all of the above.
As John Legend noted in his Oscar acceptance speech for Glory, “The struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world.”
Stevenson’s book gives us an inside look as to why this is true and raises troubling questions in the process. Why are more than half of those incarcerated people of color? Why do the vast majority of executions occur in Southern states? Why were over 150 exonerated death row prisoners on death row in the first place? How do we decide who receives the death penalty instead of life in prison?
We won’t read Just Mercy in a vacuum. Perhaps you know someone in prison or have spent time there yourself. Perhaps a loved one was the victim of crime. You may believe the death penalty should be abolished or that it’s a fitting and necessary punishment. You may believe certain crimes warrant life in prison. You may be skeptical of claims regarding racism, discrimination, and mistreatment in the US justice system. You may be appalled by the system but question what you can do about it.
Your views might be challenged or they might be affirmed. I ask simply for you to read with an open heart and mind.
I am grateful for Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative, and every other lawyer who have represented indigent defendants and prisoners who were denied fair treatment in the legal system. I applaud the work they do and I dream of a day when we can say all people have received fair and just treatment in our legal system.
The justice system is broken but because of Bryan Stevenson and his comrades, there is hope.
Come back Wednesday, April 29 for our discussion post with Cara Meredith. Join the Facebook group to share quotes and discuss the book throughout the month. REMINDER: our May book is The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything by Brian McLaren.
- “We Need to Talk About an Injustice“- Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk
- Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror– Equal Justice Initiative report
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness– Michelle Alexander
- The Cross and the Lynching Tree– James Cone
- The Processing and Treatment of Mentally Ill Persons in the Criminal Justice System– The Urban Institute
- “That’s What That N***** Deserved”: A Prejudiced Juror, a Racist Lawyer, and a Death Sentence No Court Wants to Reconsider– Marc Bookman, Mother Jones
- Confessions of a Prosecutor Who Sent an Innocent to Death Row– Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic
- A Boy Among Men: What happens when you throw a teenager into adult prison?– Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
*Recommended by Leigh Kramer and Kelley Nikondeha
Are you reading Just Mercy with us? Share your thoughts so far in the comments.