Ngan Tran / Gavel Media

Bryan Stevenson Offers Hope for Real Change in the Criminal Justice System

“Tonight I want to challenge you; I want to ask you to change the world.”

Those were some of the first words that Bryan Stevenson spoke as he addressed Boston College students and faculty at the third Lowell Humanities Series lecture in Conte Forum on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019.

Stevenson is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller Just Mercy and the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. For more than 30 years, Stevenson has worked to reform the criminal justice system and defend those who are most vulnerable to its injustices. 

He has defended those facing extreme sentences, as well as the wrongly condemned. He has argued several cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and has been a catalyst for changing the way many people think about incarceration and punishment in the United States. Our current criminal justice system emphasizes punishment rather than rehabilitation. Stevenson has represented condemned children, the intellectually disabled, the mentally ill, victims of abuse, veterans, single mothers, and poor people—who face spending the rest of their lives in prison with no chance of redemption.

Stevenson noted that reentry into society after imprisonment is made extremely difficult, with corrupt parole officers, poverty, and a lack of a support system. The government also sets restrictions on the rights of convicted felons. Most often, they are barred from receiving public assistance, living in public housing, and restricted from voting. 

Stevenson also offered statistics that revealed the problems of mass incarceration and racial injustice that plague this country. 

“The Bureau of Justice now predicts that one in three black male babies born in this country is expected to go to jail or prison during his lifetime," he noted. For Latino boys, it’s one in six, and for all Americans, it’s one in fifteen. These numbers are staggering. They reveal the racial inequality that has been present since the founding of the United States.

Stevenson pointed out that the 13th Amendment doesn’t say anything about ending racial inequality or white supremacy. Slavery didn’t end with the 13th Amendment—it evolved. We had lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws, and finally, mass incarceration. The United States has the highest number of incarcerated people in the world.

In 1980, we spent $6.9 billion on jails and prisons. By 2014, spending had increased to nearly $80 billion. In the last 30 years, the number of women in prison has increased by 646%. Seventy percent of these women are single mothers, leaving their children more vulnerable to a life of crime, poverty, or incarceration.

During his speech, Stevenson told the audience that “all of us have a role to play [...] in creating more justice.” He laid out four steps to change the world: get proximate, change the narrative, remain hopeful, and be willing to do what can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. 

His first piece of advice—to get proximate—requires us to get closer to those who are vulnerable. Stevenson claimed that politicians struggle to be effective because they are out of touch; they lack proximity. He advised the audience to get closer, because proximity is “critical to coming up with viable solutions.”

His second step involves understanding and rewriting the harmful narratives in this country. The current persisting narratives center around the “politics of fear.” They keep us from reconciling with our past history of Native American genocide and slavery. 

When describing an example of the “politics of fear” at work, Stevenson talked about the criminalization of children.

“Forty years ago, we had politicians arguing that there was a new kind of child out there [...] these children are not children.” Criminologists and politicians warned the public about these so-called “super-predators.” As a result, the U.S. began sentencing children as adults, opening up the possibility for them to face life sentences or the death penalty. 

Today, there are still 13 states with no limits on the sentencing of children. Stevenson and his organization represent children as young as nine and ten who face 30 to 40-year sentences. He continues to work to dismantle harmful narratives, and encouraged the audience to dismantle them as well.

Stevenson’s third step, to remain hopeful, was embodied in his speech. His speech, like his book Just Mercy, was a message of hope, redemption, and mercy. He told the audience that “it takes courage to be hopeful,” but we have to have to find that courage because “hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” The world cannot change, cannot become more just, if we lose hope. 

His final step, to get uncomfortable and to be willing to do the inconvenient, seemed especially fitting for addressing a Boston College audience. Students have to be willing to step out of their comfort zones if there is to be real change. Boston College students are privileged to have the opportunities and platform they do, and need to use their voices to “beat the drum for justice.” 

Stevenson’s non-profit, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), is “beating the drum for justice” and working to change the world. The organization is run out of Montgomery, Alabama, a state with one of the highest execution rates and extreme racial inequality. 

The EJI staff and volunteers are getting proximate, working in the community and directly with imprisoned people. They are working to change the narratives of slavery by confronting the past. The EJI has set up two legacy museums that tell the true history of slavery and its aftermaths in the South. It has a program that aims to place a memorial marker at every site where a lynching occurred. The EJI offers hope to those facing lengthy prison sentences or executions, and it inspires others to play a part in creating a more just system.

In the final lines of his speech, Stevenson told students, “Don’t ever think that your grades, your income, are a reflection of your capacity to change the world.”

If you would like to learn more about the EJI or how to get involved, click here.