By Amanda Adams, AASCU Civic Engagement Intern & Stockton University student
Last week, Bryan Stevenson was the Constitution Day speaker at Stockton University in New Jersey; he spoke about his book, inequality, mass incarceration, the death penalty and the U.S. Constitution. The reason Stevenson wrote his book, Just Mercy (2014), was to change the way that people think the justice system works. As Stevenson was being introduced at Stockton, he was described as America’s young Nelson Mandela.
Stevenson was an undergraduate philosophy major, but during his senior year he had been asked by countless people what he was going to do with his degree. He realized that no one was going to pay him to be a philosopher. When he started looking into master’s degrees he found out that, “you don’t need to know anything to go to law school” so that is what he did. He became disappointed with law school until he interned in Atlanta. Due to lack of lawyers at his internship site he was sent to visit death row to inform a man, a prisoner, that he would not be executed within the next year. After hours of talking to this man about their lives and interests the guards forcefully took the man out of the visitation room. Stevenson begged for them to be gentle, but they didn’t listen. While the man was being shackled and forced out the room he told Stevenson, ‘thank you, please come back.” Before the guards could get the man out of the door he started singing a the hymn ‘Higher Ground.’ This stuck with Stevenson and made him realize that that was what he wanted to do with his life; he wanted to help prisoners like this man reach higher ground. Stevenson started to buckle down and studied civil law, criminal law, and much more; that is how he got to where he is today.
During his speech he talked about inequality, mostly in the criminal justice system. Did you know that there are 15 states that do not have a minimum age to try a child as an adult? There are over 10,000 kids in jails and prisons today in the U.S. Did you know that 1 in 3 Black children born today will go to jail or prison at some point in their lifetime and that, based on the number of death row convictions over turned due to new determinations of innocence and, 1 in 9 people on death row are innocent of the crimes they are sentenced to death for?
In order to make a change we have to follow what the Constitution says, transform the narrative on what is going on in our country, and stay hopeful that things will change; without hope there is no chance for change. Stevenson is working on many ways to change the system. Slowly he is trying to change how the courts work along with his colleagues. It is a slow process because the Supreme Court is typically careful and cautious; it takes multiple steps and time to bring about change. A problem that has been seen during this process is that the Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t always change what happens. Another way Stevenson and his colleagues are trying to help is by working with police units to help them gain respect in their communities, reduce crime rates and have officers treat the people in their community with dignity and respect. They have created a booklet of 40 pages of recommendations for police; the major goal is to steer police away from militarization.
Near the end of his speech Stevenson said,” we have not yet seen equality for all in this country,” and, ”the opposite of poverty is justice.” The U.S. Constitution can be an instrument for equality and justice, but it takes our actions as a society to ensure that this document lives up to our ideals.
To learn more about Stevenson’s work check out the website of his foundation, the Equal Justice Initiative.