Over the holidays, I finished reading lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson’s extraordinary memoir, Just Mercy. Not only does Stevenson humanize the incarcerated by telling their stories but he goes marrow deep in describing endemic injustices in our criminal justice system.
Perhaps it’s because so many of the lawyers I’ve come to like and admire are criminal defense attorneys that I’ve found myself reading to understand their work. The best of them are lawyers who despite the odds remain willing to represent defendants who New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin once wrote are “treated as just another fungible item to be shuffled along on a criminal-justice conveyor belt.”
In reading books like Just Mercy, I follow a thread begun when I first picked up David Cole’s 1999 seminal standard, No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System. I later read John Grisham’s The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. Grisham’s nonfiction book left me disgusted and angry. That book was followed by Steven Bogira’s Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse.
And more recently still tripping the outrage meter, there’s been Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces and Michael Cicchini’s Tried and Convicted: How Police, Prosecutors, and Judges Destroy Our Constitutional Rights.
These aren’t books just for lawyers. Every U.S. resident should read them. Forewarned is forearmed. Indeed, Cicchini’s latest, the equally excellent, Convicting Avery: The Bizarre Laws and Broken System behind “Making a Murderer,” to be published in April, will hopefully all but ensure average citizens do all they can to stay far away from the machinery of criminal justice. Too many times, it seems, the sad message for the Average Joe and Jane coming from unequal justice literature is if you don’t have money for a defense — you’re going to get screwed.
All of which gets me back to Just Mercy and what’s stayed with me since reading it. It was the chapter almost near the end of the book where Stevenson talks about the one night 25 years into his fight against excessive punishment, mass incarceration, and racial and economic injustice, and when at extremely low ebb, he despairs over our “broken system of justice.” He is ready to stop. “I can’t do this anymore,” he writes. “I can just leave. Why am I doing this?”
But through his soul crisis, he comes to a powerful epiphany. Stevenson writes: “My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.
“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.”
And then in one of the book’s most arrestingly inspirational passages, Stevenson cites a quote once heard and attributed to writer Thomas Merton, “We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we are fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.
“We have a choice. We can embrace our humaneness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”
In his Ted talk below, Bryan Stevenson revisits this and more, including “The opposite of poverty is justice.” For more insights watch the video and read Just Mercy.
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