Bryan Stevenson (Nina Subin)

Lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson on building racial justice: "This work is just beginning"

Best-selling author on his new YA book on justice and Alabama's new museum on enslavement and incarceration

Rachel Leah
September 18, 2018 3:30PM (UTC)

Bryan Stevenson, an acclaimed public interest attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has committed his life to justice — and especially to the task of closing the gap between how the criminal justice system operates for poor people and people of color, and America's purported ideal of equal justice for all.

But for more than 30 years, Stevenson has embarked on a mission to try. He won a historic victory in the U.S. Supreme Court, successfully arguing that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors aged 17 and under were unconstitutional. Along with his EJI staff, Stevenson has obtained reversals, relief or release for more than 125 wrongfully convicted prisoners on death row. And this spring, in Montgomery, Alabama, EJI opened the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, built on the grounds of a former warehouse where enslaved people were imprisoned, in the capital of what was once among the largest slave-owning states in America. The narrative museum is coupled with the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation's first to honor and document black people who were victims of racial terror lynchings.


In 2014, Stevenson published "Just Mercy." It's part memoir, part an account of his work and EJI's development. But it centers on those Stevenson represents: people who are most vulnerable to the lack of justice in the criminal justice system. It was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.

Four years later, Stevenson is publishing a young adult adaptation of this story (9/18), with a renewed focus on juvenile justice. In a conversation with Salon, he discussed the millions of children impacted in myriad ways by incarceration and excessive punishment, his own family's experiences living in the Jim Crow South and why the work of eliminating racism, discrimination and bigotry in the United States is just beginning.

This new edition of your book is very exciting. Reading "Just Mercy" for me last year was such a transformative experience. It's really exciting that young people are getting a version tailored for them.


I'm excited about that as well. I really do believe so many kids see some of these realities and don't have much context or help in making sense of them. I hope that the book can be a resource for them.

Is that what prompted you to write this adaptation?

Yeah, I work with so many young clients in jails and prisons who really are trying to make sense of how their lives have been disrupted. There's so many children who are the kids of incarcerated parents. When you think about 70 million people with criminal arrest histories, the tremendous increase in the numbers of women sent to jails — 70 percent of whom are single parents with minor children — you begin to realize that mass incarceration and excessive punishment is not unknown to millions of children in this country. We don't really help them manage that very effectively.


I really did want to make the book accessible to younger readers who are looking for stories and insight and understanding and to help them manage the lives that they're living and to take care of them.

I remember interviewing someone who was first arrested when they were 14. Only now, as an adult, does he have the understanding of stop-and-frisk or these policies that he experienced intimately, but didn't even have the language for.


What people forget is that in some communities, half or more of all young people of color are going to end up in jails or prisons, or end up in some relationship with the criminal justice system. I think we haven't equipped these kids to understand how and why this phenomenon has emerged, or to assess whether it's fair, or right, or just. Those questions are really important questions for people who are trying to make choices about how they respond to the challenges that we confront on a daily basis.

What else do you hope that young people get from reading this book?

I hope that if they know people, have relatives or loved ones that have been impacted by over-incarceration or excessive punishment, they will learn more about the system and structure, and that will allow them to be more thoughtful about how to deal with their loved one and more responsive to the needs of their loved one. Or, with lots of kids who don't have a personal experience with this, I hope it makes them more empathetic and compassionate and thoughtful about these issues.


Ultimately, we need a more informed population to create the kind of policy discussions and political discussions that are necessary to end excessive punishment and over-incarceration. It's going to be a narrative struggle. We think differently about where we put our trash and recycling and all these things, because an effort was made with younger people to educate folks about the challenges posed by climate change. It's created a generation of people that were very attentive to those issues. I think the same is true for how we think about people with certain kinds of disabilities.

I think we're going to have to do the same thing when it comes to the poor and people of color and this long history of criminal justice oversight for huge populations. I think if we create a consciousness about that, people will be saying things like, "It's not fair to treat somebody that way." If we create a generation of people who accept this idea that we're all more than the worst thing we've ever done, and it's wrong to reduce someone to their worst act, I think it will create a different political environment, a social environment, cultural environment that I think can make a huge difference.

In the introduction to "Just Mercy," you write, "The opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice." You also say that in your TED Talk. Can you explain that idea? 


I think too often we spend too much time talking about money. There are structures and systems that create inequality and poverty when someone's coming out of jail or prison, and is banned from certain kinds of employment because of that criminal history. They're not allowed to live in areas where there are job opportunities, and when they encounter a job application, the first question is, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?"

When we create opportunities but don't make those opportunities available to people because of their race or their ethnicity or their class or their national origin, we create structural barriers to eliminating poverty, to getting out of poverty. The barriers reflect our commitment to what's just. If we have unjust banking policies, which is what dominated the ability to get a mortgage in the mid 1950s, white GIs were able to get mortgages and build homes and create movement into the middle class. Black GIs couldn't, and that wasn't about their willingness to work hard, or their attitude or talent or skill. It was about the injustice of racial discrimination and redlining in the housing industry and bank mortgage loans.

To eliminate poverty, we're going to have to eliminate the injustice of that bigotry. That's why I maintain this view that the opposite of poverty isn't wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice. When we create just systems, just structures, just opportunities, just mechanisms for education and training, then we can see real change when it comes to helping people get out of poverty. Until we do that, there's no intervention, no strategy that's going to be sustainable if people have to continue to contend with these unjust structures and systems.


When it comes to adolescents and teenagers who commit crimes, there's that infamous saying from the '90s: "If you do adult crimes, you do adult time." I'm always baffled by the fact that there is so much resistance to teenagers being treated as children in the criminal justice system. Impaired judgment is federally acknowledged when it comes to teenagers voting or smoking or drinking or anything else.

No, you're absolutely right. I mean we're just disingenuous when we say, "These children should be treated just like adults." We never treat children like adults, in any other context. We don't let them smoke. We don't let them drink. We don't let them vote. We don't let them buy some things because we recognize that their ability to make decisions is compromised by their adolescent development, their biological development. To say that a child of 13 or 14 is just like an adult when they make a judgment to do something criminal, it is so counterintuitive, but it's even worse than that.

It's perverse, because these are the children who are often even less supported. They've got even bigger barriers to maturation and healthy growth because they're dealing with trauma and abuse and marginalization. I just think that what allowed us to get comfortable mistreating these children are these narratives of racial difference, demonizing generational black and brown kids by calling them "superpredators," and the politics of fear and anger.

It takes a community of people governed by fear and anger to make them indifferent to putting young children in adult jails and prisons where they know they are going to be abused or assaulted — to make them turn their backs on kids who are suffering and struggling. I just think that has a lot to do with how these policies came to be so dominant. We had politicians who were preaching fear and anger. You will tolerate inequality and injustice and abuse and mistreatment of others if you allow yourself to be governed by fear and anger, which is why I think part of what we have to do is to reject the politics of fear and anger.


It's hard to read, but obviously very important, reading about the trauma and abuse that many of these children you've taken on as clients experienced prior to their incarceration. How can the criminal justice system address trauma when it comes to juvenile offenders?

I think it's a central question. But we know how to help people with trauma disorders, and we also know that there are hundreds of thousands of children born into violent families, living in violent neighborhoods, going to violent schools, where by the time they are five, they have trauma disorders. Their brains are producing adrenaline and cortisol at these elevated levels to help them cope with this constant threat of violence and people screaming and gunshots. This menace that they're dealing with all the time is managed by these elevated levels of these chemicals, which create this hyper-reactivity, and that is a trauma disorder.

When our vets come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD, they don't react appropriately because their brains are producing these same elevated levels. What happens when you're threatened, your brain will begin to produce these chemicals. If we're healthy, when that threat is eliminated, our brains will get back to normal. For children who are constantly being threatened, just like for vets or soldiers who have been constantly threatened, the brain produces these chemicals all the time.

There is a strategy for treating that, for managing that. You want to make our returning vets feel safe and if we do that successfully, long enough, their brain chemistry shifts and they can become healthy and act normally. It's the same for children, except what we're doing for kids is the opposite. When those kids with common disorders coming out of these violent environments show up at school, we have too many teachers that threaten them. They talk to the children like they're correctional officers or like they are wardens. We threaten and menace these children with suspension and expulsion if they make a mistake. These kids, rather than being made to feel safe when they come to school, are actually being threatened in new ways, which just aggravates their trauma disorder.


I just think if we understood that when that child of eight takes a drug for the first time, and for the first time in their life has three hours where they don't feel menaced and overwhelmed, we won't want to punish them for wanting to get more of that drug. We'll want to intervene and try to create a sense where they're not threatened and menaced without the illegal use of those drugs. Rather than seeing people who join gangs at 11 because they're tired of being constantly threatened and somebody is saying, "We'll protect you," we see that as a symptom of this larger phenomenon.

Why did this child end up in this situation? What's wrong with this child? That's a question we don't even ask too often in our criminal justice system. Until we ask those questions, we're not going to be able to answer them effectively.

I remember seeing that Vera Institute of Justice survey that found that 86 percent of women in jails were survivors of sexual assault and the ways these experiences of violence are deemed illegitimate.

That's exactly right. That's right, and when people say to me, "Well, I'm more for victims' rights than offenders' rights," they want to create this bifurcated world where people are either offenders or victims. I often explain to them, "If you're concerned about victimization of people, I can take you to a community of people who are the most victimized in American society." You want to meet the population of people who have suffered assault and rape and murder and robbery and violence more than any other group, well that would be the population incarcerated in our jails and prisons. Their victimization was ignored, and it’s part of the problem with creating this consciousness that seeks to divide the world between offenders and victims.

I just think we've done a really poor job at responding to the epidemic of violence that too many children are born into in this country, too many women have to live with, and too many men inherit. Disrupting that is going to mean thinking a lot more carefully about health and healthy communities and allowing people to recover when they are overwhelmed by these forces that push them toward violence, addiction and dependency.

READ MORE: Lisa Luckett, 9/11 widow, explains how tragedy helps us grow

In the book, you talk about the trauma that incarcerated children experienced beforehand. But with the story of Charlie, one of the subjects you write about, being incarcerated with adults opened him up to horrific trauma. Are juveniles much more vulnerable to sexual abuse in adult prisons and jails?

It's a real problem. On any given day, there are several thousand children housed in adult jails and prisons where they're at great risk of abuse and assault. There are about 28 states that do not categorically keep all children out of adult jails and prisons. I don't think anybody can defend it. We have the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which prohibits it, but there's no enforcement mechanism with that act. The reason why there are still children in adult jails and prisons facing the kind of brutal treatment that I document with Charlie is that we haven't cared enough to implement the reforms needed to make sure that no child is ever in that situation again. It's about our will, and I think because most people don't know about this, they're not motivated to insist that people do better.

You talk about the influence of your grandmother, as being the daughter of people who were enslaved. With the recent release of Zora Neale Hurston's "Barracoon," it's a real reminder of how recent this history really is.

Yes, I think you're right. I think most people think that this is so, so, so long ago. We're really in the early days of a post-enslavement, post-lynching, post-segregation, post-apartheid era in American history. My grandmother was in my ear all the time talking to me about the stories of enslavement that her parents told her. She fled the rural South in response to the terror created by lynchings that took place in and around her community. My parents were humiliated every day of their lives by Jim Crow segregation. Those signs that said "white" and "colored" weren't directions for them. They were assaults. I started my education in a colored school.

I think that we haven't acknowledged how little time we have devoted in this post-legal-segregation era to recovery, which is why it's always vexing to me when people act as if we've been trying to eliminate discrimination for 300 years, or 200 years, or 100 years. We haven't actually been trying to eliminate discrimination for very long at all. In fact, you can argue that we haven't ever really started. We've addressed the obvious problems of legalized racial segregation, but we actually haven't tried to eliminate bias and bigotry and discrimination for very long. That's why I think this work is just beginning, rather than anywhere near at the end.

In your TED Talk you speak about a woman in Germany who talked about how the death penalty would be unconscionable in Germany — to systematically execute people based on their history. Somehow America doesn't see mass incarceration, or systematically executing or disenfranchising black and brown people, as similarly unconscionable given our own history.

Yes, and I think that had a lot to do with our failure to create cultural narratives, narratives about this history that are compelling and disruptive of the status quo. We just opened our museum, The Legacy Museum in Montgomery in April and the National Memorial. I'm really excited about these places. We've gotten just a wonderful response from tens of thousands of visitors that have come through. It's a little bizarre that it's 2018 and this is the first time we've had a site dedicated to the horrors of racial terrorism in America evinced by lynching.

Some people have said when they come to our site, "I've lived my whole life in this country. I've never seen a sculpture on slavery that depicts the brutality of slavery and the dignity of those who were enslaved." That there are so few spaces in America that honestly present narratives about the brutality of enslavement says a lot about the work that remains. I go to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and at the end of it, I'm motivated to say, "Never again." But where are the spaces that motivate people to see the history of racial inequality in this country and say the same thing: "Never again"?

That's partly what we're trying to do here. But it's 2018. I think these sites are unique and unprecedented in a lot of ways, which just speaks to the work that we have yet to do to create a real consciousness on this history.

Radically rethinking the prison system

"Any system of justice that relies on prison is to me not a humane or a just system," author Baz Dreisinger said.

Rachel Leah

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