Friday, May 26, 2017

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

I have been privileged and protected in my small life. I came from a working class family with no significant problems. I was able to find a college to accept my less than stellar grades. I married a man who went into the ministry. We had challenges but we had what we needed. No one in my family was ever in jail, no one was targeted because of color or religion.

I knew about the great faults in American society and my heart was in the right place. I spoke out when I could, boycotted, tried to be educated, tried to pattern the right behavior. But I had no idea of the depth of my ignorance until reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

The stories Stevenson shared crushed me, like a pressure on my chest. I read a chapter at a time, then had to step away and let the horror and despair subside. For Stevenson reveals an American justice system not only without mercy but that was corrupted on the local level for political gain.

In the 1980s, fear of rising crime was used by politicians who proposed stricter and harsher prison sentences, three-strike laws, and treating children as adults. As prisons filled to overcapacity, for-profit prisons arose and they lobbied for harsher sentences to keep their business profitable. The death penalty was reinvigorated, even if the methods employed were cruel and unreliable.

Caught in the cycle are innocent men and women, children relegated to life in prison where they are sexually abused, the mentally handicapped, and women who raped by men unpunished for their abuse of power.

Bryan Stevenson was drawn to seek justice for those on death row, especially the innocent without legal counsel. He started the Equal Justice Initiative and Just Mercy is the story of his work and the people he tried to help. It is a cry for reform of the justice and prison system. And a cry for mercy.

The book has won numerous awards and prizes. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times called it, "Searing, moving." It is a disturbing book to read, especially because upright citizens who demand punishment have little idea of who they are condemning and what they are condemning them to. We have instituted "vengeful and cruel punishments" justified by our own suffering. "But simply punishing the broken--walking away from them or hiding them from sight--only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity," Stevenson writes.

There is one story that brings hope. A prison guard who showed extreme racial prejudice learns more about the prisoner he has treated with contempt, and he could connect his experiences to the prisoner's. It changed the guard's mind and his life.

Stevenson is the mouthpiece for the stories of unjustly imprisoned men and women, allowing readers to understand their walk. May we learn compassion and press for a just system, showing mercy to those broken by racism, mental illness, poverty, addiction, abuse, and trauma.

As Stevenson reminds us, we are all broken people.

I received a free book from Blogging for Books in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Just Mercy
Bryan Stevenson
Spiegel & Grau
$16 paperback
ISN: 978-0-8129-8496-5

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