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Author: jnemec2

Helping the Poor in the Criminal Justice System

One of the focuses of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative’s work is helping the poor in the United States criminal justice system. Stevenson has asserted that in our current criminal justice system wealthy people fair better than poor people. The Constitution Project, a non-profit organization that works to build bipartisan consensus on significant constitutional and legal questions, explores this disparity in their film Defending Gideon.

In the film, the 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright case is highlighted. As a result of the case the United States Supreme Court ruled that states are required to provide counsel in criminal cases when defendants are unable to pay. According to Defending Gideon, 80% of people accused of a crime today cannot afford a lawyer. However the law is not perfect.  As was pointed out by Huntsville Times columnist, Stephen Stetson, in an editorial: “Federal law requires the states to provide attorneys for the poor, but it doesn’t specify how.” What this means is that all states are not created equal when it comes to appointing lawyers to defendants. In the film, Bryan Stevenson explains the problem this way:

 Rights and even court decisions don’t necessarily turn into realities for the people who are the intended beneficiaries, without implementation.

He further points out that problems with implementation are often structural. Some examples he points out are some states have too many cases, but not enough resources, some states appoint lawyers but don’t give lawyers adequate compensation so the lawyers are less able to prepare an adequate defense, and some states hire contract lawyers where the state bids on who will do the most cases for the least amount of money. Stevenson and The Constitution Project argue that these kinds of systems are flawed and disadvantage the poor.

To watch Defending Gideon click here.
To learn more about the Constitution Project click here.
To read Stephen Stetson’s Huntsville Times editorial click here.

Nevada Ends Life Without Parole For Children

James Dold, an advocate for this legislation from the nonprofit organization Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth had this to say: “Finally, Nevada law has caught up and recognizes that children are different than adults and those differences need to be taken into account.” The law goes into effect on October 1, 2015.At the end of May, Nevada became the 13th state to end life without parole sentences for offenders younger than 18. The bill was sponsored by Nevada Assembly Speaker John Hambrick, a Republican from Las Vegas, Assembly Majority Leader Paul Anderson, a Republican from Las Vegas, and Assemblyman Pat Hickey, a Republican from Reno. The bill was passed by the state Legislature with a unanimous vote.

For more information click here.

To read more about the nonprofit organization the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth click here.

A Prison Built On Second Chances

Anybody can change their lives with the right kind of help, guidance, giving them a chance.This past weekend NPR published a story about an unconventional prison in Norway. The maximum security prison in Halden, Norway houses murderers, rapists, drug smugglers, and in one prison operator’s words “everything” else. However, like Bryan Stevenson, the prison’s operators want to give the inmates a second chance. The prison’s mission makes two things very clear. First, the prisoners are not bad people, they just did bad things. And second, the prisoners are not in prison to be punished, they are there to serve time. As one of the employees of the prison said:

Prisoners have their own private cells furnished with a bed, desk, TV, and refrigerator. They are locked in their cells for 12 hours a day, compared to the 23 hours a day the would be locked in their cells for the same offenses in the United States. One inmate who was in the Halden Prison for murder, had this to say about why that kind of prison does not work:

If they lock me up 23
hours a day, if an officer come open my door, I kick his [butt], because
why should I not? I’m locked up 23 hours a day anyway,” he says. “But
they treat me with respect, they give me opportunities and trust, and I
want to show that I’m worthy.

The prison offers inmates a second chance with counseling, classes, and workshops to learn useful skills, like welding. However, if the inmates do not cooperate they are sent to more conventional prisons. So far this prison, focused on rehabilitation, has less than 30% of released prisoners commit crimes again.

To read or listen to the NPR story click here.

Equal Justice Initiative: Challenging Abusive Punishments of Juveniles

As part of this work, the EJI seeks to end the practice of sentencing children under the age of 14 as adults, to end the placement of anyone under the age of 18 in adult prisons, and to end life imprisonment without parole and other excessive sentences given to children. In an effort to spread awareness of children in prisons across the country, EJI, put together a publication called All Children are Children: Challenging Abusive Punishments of Juveniles.The United States is the only country in the world to sentence children to die in prison. Currently about 10,000 Americans under the age of 18 are in adult prisons. As of 2014, 14 states had no minimum age for adult prosecution. The Equal Justice Initiative is working to provide legal assistance to juveniles sentenced to die in prison, to end juveniles being placed in adult prisons where there are at a higher risk of assault and sexual violence, and to challenge the prosecution of young children as adults.

To read All Children are Children: Challenging Abusive Punishments of Juveniles click here.

Spreading Bryan Stevenson’s Message through a TED Talk

In March of 2012 Bryan Stevenson gave a TED Talk about his work to reform the criminal justice system. In April of this year Stevenson was interviewed about his TED Talk experience by Charlie Rose for 60 Minutes. In the interview Stevenson admits that when he was first asked to do a TED Talk he didn’t know what it was. Now though, he is very grateful for the experience and exposure. The TED Talk helped the Equal Justice Initiative raise one million dollars and even today, three years after the Talk, the online video helps create awareness of the nonprofit organization and its mission.

Chris Anderson, the man who runs TED, is the one who wanted Stevenson to do a TED Talk. He said that the purpose of TED is to help people spread ideas. He describes what TED does by explaining that:

There are numerous brilliant people out there and they’ve come up with something really important. And so part of the way we see our role is to help them make their knowledge accessible.

Anderson and his colleagues at TED saw Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative’s ideas as worth spreading. Watch and share the TED Talk here. Read or watch Bryan Stevenson and Chris Anderson’s interview with Charlie Rose here.

What Bryan Stevenson Learned from Ralph Ellison

This spring during the Los Angeles Festival of Books, the Los Angeles Times featured writers discussing their literary idols. Bryan Stevenson was one of those writers. He wrote about Ralph Ellison an how the book Invisible Man changed how he saw things.

Ellison taught me that sometimes a book can disrupt the relationship you have to the world around you and force you to demand more, seek more, expect more, experience more that is essential and important to what truly matters.

After reading Invisible Man, Stevenson noticed a change in how he viewed racially segregated society and made him more aware of the roles he maintained in that society. He used the wisdom he learned from the narrative in Invisible Man in writing his own book, Just Mercy.

After Invisible Man, I knew it existed; this place where words, narrative and language can get you close to truth and the powers that truth can activate.

Have any books impacted you the way Invisible Man impacted Bryan Stevenson? Who is your literary idol?

To read Stevenson’s article about Ellison click here.

To see if Just Mercy is available for check out at UW Madison Libraries click here.

To see if Invisible Man is available for check out at UW Madison Libraries click here.

Bryan Stevenson’s Interview with Truthout


Photo of Bryan Stevenson by Linda Nylind Guardian

Bryan Stevenson was recently interviewed by Truthout. In the interview he was asked to elaborate on some of the issues he discusses in his book, Just Mercy. In particular he expands on what the book’s title means, areas of the Unites States’ criminal justice system that he is advocating to improve, and the challenges ahead for helping those most vulnerable in our current system.

Stevenson works primarily on issues in the criminal justice system related to race and poverty, children in prison, mass incarceration, and the death penalty. In this interview he explains why his work is so important an why he started the Equal Justice Initiative as a young lawyer. He sums up the purpose of his work by saying:

It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.

With his book, Just Mercy, Stevenson hopes to bring these issues to the attention of more people. For example in the United States 68 million people out of 320 million people have criminal records. That equates to one out of every four to five people in our country. He sees that number as too high and as a result is devoted to working for social justice.

To read the Truthout interview click here.

NPR Interview with Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson conducted an interview with NPR back in October 2014. In this interview he shared a personal experience he had in his 20’s as well as the case at the center of his book, Just Mercy.

The interviewer began by asking Bryan about an encounter he had with police in his 20’s in Atlanta. Bryan had been listening to the radio in his car outside of his new home when a police unit pulled up and pulled a gun on him. Bryan describes the terrifying event in a calm and poised voice now, but he admits that at the site of the gun his first instinct was to run. Bryan was a Harvard law student at the time and remained calm, but it was this encounter that led him to ask young boys and men in the area if they know what to do if they are in that situation. He was surprised to discover that the majority of boys did not know what to do, and this was just one of many events that influenced his future work with the Equal Justice Initiative.

The rest of the interview focuses on the case at the center of Just Mercy. The discussion focuses not only on Bryan, but on Mr. McMillian himself. McMillian died in 2013. Bryan had the following to say about the early death of McMillian,

One of the things that pains me is we have so tragically underestimated the trauma, the hardship we create in this country when we treat people unfairly, when we incarcerate them unfairly, when we condemn them unfairly.

To hear the interview and to read the highlights click here 


Good Leadership is Key: Desmond Tutu on Bryan Stevenson and Malala Yousafzai

Desmond Tutu, South African humanitarian and social rights activist, discusses good leadership in a recent Vanity Fair article titled “Why Desond Tutu Thinks Bryan Stevenson is ‘Shaping the Moral Universe.'” In the article he commends two individuals he feels are leaders making a difference in the world today. The two leaders are Malala Yousafzai and Bryan Stevenson.

Tutu had this to say about good leaders:

Good leadership is key. Good leaders with the ability to identify the challenges and the tenacity to act on them.

He sees Stevenson as a “champion for justice” and Yousafzai as a champion of women of and girls’ rights.

He acknowledges the challenges involved in working toward big change, but is hopeful that with good leadership, such as the leadership of Stevenson and Yousafzai, significant change is possible.

We may not be capable of changing the world in one fell swoop on our own, but when we swim together in the same good direction, we become an unstoppable force.

To read Tutu’s article click here.
For more information about Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, click here.

Go Big Read selects ‘Just Mercy’ for 2015-16

Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls Bryan Stevenson “America’s Mandela.”
Stevenson has spent his career fighting for racial justice and wants his fellow Americans to realize that something is inherently wrong with the land of the free and the home of the brave having the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Photo: Brian Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson
Photo: Nina Subin
In the 1980s, Stevenson co-founded the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Alabama. Since then, he has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court five times and played a role in landmark court cases that have transformed how the criminal justice system deals with violent youths. His book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” is the latest selection for Go Big Read, UW-Madison’s common-reading program.
Go Big Read organizers encouraged the campus community to suggest titles that fit into a theme of inequality in America. Chancellor Rebecca Blank chose “Just Mercy” from the short list that a selection committee culled from 200 nominated titles.
“Bryan Stevenson’s book raises tough and important questions about inequalities in the criminal justice system,” Blank says. “Now is a particularly good time to hold these conversations, as UW-Madison students, staff and faculty grapple with the ways in which these larger national issues affect our own community.”
Hundreds of UW students and community members have taken part in demonstrations following the fatal shooting by a Madison police officer of a black teenager on the city’s East Side, as well as grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York. Many more added their voices to this important discussion during campus forums.
Stevenson’s book focuses on one of his first cases, which involved Walter McMillan, a black Alabama businessman sentenced to die for the murder of a white woman despite having an alibi verified by dozens of witnesses. “The message of this book, hammered home by dramatic examples of one man’s refusal to sit quietly and countenance horror, is that evil can be overcome, a difference can be made,” said a review in The New York Times. “‘Just Mercy’ will make you upset and it will make you hopeful.”
Stevenson grew up in Delaware and graduated from Harvard in 1985 with a law degree and a master’s degree in public policy. Since then he has helped secure relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, advocated for poor people and developed community-based reform litigation aimed at improving the administration of criminal justice. He also is on the faculty at New York University School of Law and the winner of a MacArthur “genius grant.” Last year President Barack Obama appointed him to a task force established to recommend police practices that can improve relations between officers and the people they serve, particularly in minority communities.
William P. Jones, a professor of history and a member of the Go Big Read review committee, says he will use Stevenson’s book in his courses to introduce the question of “mass incarceration” and its impact on the economic and political history of the United States.
“There is perhaps no greater evidence of injustice and inequality in our society than the brutality, unfairness and racial bias displayed by our criminal justice system,” Jones says.  “‘Just Mercy’ is an ideal book for us to read and discuss together as we seek to understand and address those problems.”
By recounting his experience as a defense attorney, the author shows how poverty and racial bias work together to shape those inequalities, Jones says. “Stevenson forces us to confront the contradictions between our criminal justice system and our nation’s founding principles of equality, freedom and justice.”
Planning is underway for how students, faculty and staff will use the book in classrooms and for special events associated with “Just Mercy.” Stevenson is scheduled to visit campus Oct. 26, when he will give a talk in Varsity Hall at Union South. Copies of the book will be given to first-year students at the Chancellor’s Convocation for New Students and to students using the book in their classes.