Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a prominent attorney who defends people on death row, will speak at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Sottile Theatre, 44 George St.
His appearance is part of the College of Charleston’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, a series of lectures funded in part by Google and organized by the Avery Research Center, Addlestone Library, the African-American Studies Program, the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative and community partners.
Stevenson, author of the best-selling “Just Mercy,” provides legal assistance primarily to wrongly convicted death-row inmates and children and women sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He has regularly addressed the problem of mass incarceration, disproportionate sentencing practices and the ways in which America’s criminal justice system functions to disenfranchise thousands of poor citizens.
The Post and Courier asked Stevenson about his legal work and his advocacy for truth and reconciliation.
Q: You have been fighting on behalf of the disenfranchised and over-incarcerated for many years. Recently, it seems the national mood has shifted in ways that allow your message to penetrate the mainstream. Presidential candidates now are talking seriously about the problem of mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. What do you think accounts for this change, and do you think serious reform is likely?
A: I think the recession of 2008 was terrible for everyone with the possible exception of people in jails and prisons. State governments finally began looking at the economic toll of decades of mass incarceration. We spent $6 billion on jails and prisons in 1980 and $80 billion last year. With budget shortfalls colliding with less revenue as a result of the recession, states started questioning whether we need all these people in prison. It turns out we don’t. We incarcerate thousands of people who are not a threat to public safety. We incarcerate them largely because elected leaders have been competing with each other over who can be the toughest on crime for the last 40 years. Now instead of just hearing people say they want to be tough on crime, you hear folks saying let’s be smart on crime. The high cost of mass incarceration has finally required justification and that’s creating opportunities we haven’t seen in a long time.
Q: You have argued that the nation’s failure to fully confront its history of slavery and exploitation has prevented the U.S. from instituting productive, lasting reform. How should we go about addressing past wrongs?
A: We first have to acknowledge that we have a terrible history of racial injustice in this country. We need to be appropriately sober and thoughtful about the tragic violence and shameful abuse to which people of color have been subjected in America. The genocide involving Native Americans, the enslavement of black people, the racial terrorism that fostered lynching, the codification and legalization of racial hierarchy and white supremacy that sustained Jim Crow have created shadows in American society we have yet to overcome. To begin the recovery process we have to confront this legacy more honestly. My organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, has a project to put markers at lynching sites across the nation. We’ve erected markers to the slave trade in Montgomery because our city loves talking about mid-19th century history (we have 59 markers, memorials and monuments to the Confederacy in Montgomery) but we don’t ever talk about slavery. We need more cultural spaces that deal honestly with slavery, lynching and segregation. We have to commit to a process of truth and reconciliation not unlike what took place in South Africa, Rwanda and Germany.
Q: As an attorney, you defend people on death row, and you argue against the use of capital punishment. Why do you oppose the death penalty?
A: The issue of the death penalty has to be framed by a different question than most people ask. Capital punishment isn’t about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit, the more appropriate question is: Do we deserve to kill? When you have a system that treats people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent, a system that is unreliable where there have been 156 death row prisoners proved innocent and released from death row, a system that is characterized by racial bias — race of victim is still the greatest predictor of who gets the death penalty in most states, and a system where politics, elected judges and ambitious state officials sometime put their interests above the interests of justice, I don’t think we deserve to kill. I also believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done and that it’s hypocritical to sing and pray about redemption and salvation on Sunday and then sentence people to death on Monday.
Q: I’ve noticed a little buzz on social media calling on President Obama to nominate you for the Supreme Court. Speaking hypothetically, would you consider it? Or, to ask the question in a more general way, would you consider agitating for justice from a position within the system, or do you think you are most effective working outside of government?
A: I’m flattered to hear my name associated with such a prestigious honor as a nomination to the Supreme Court. It would of course be a great privilege for any lawyer to have that opportunity, but I’m quite content working on issues I care about deeply and confronting injustice that I think is a great threat to all of us.
Q: I have heard that you are a workaholic, devoting all your waking time to the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit you founded in 1989, to teaching and lecturing and to other professional pursuits. Is this true? If so, what do you wish you could be doing instead?
A: I am a workaholic, although I’m not an unhappy one. I feel privileged to do what I do on behalf of people whose lives matter a great deal. If I weren’t doing this work, I’d love be making music. I grew up in a very musical family and performed church music and then jazz until my legal career made it difficult. I love music and the powerful way it can bring people together and inspire and uplift hearts and minds.
Q: Finally, an impolitic question: You have accumulated innumerable awards and honorary degrees from people and institutions who genuinely admire your efforts on behalf of “the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned.” It would seem that you have lots of support. And yet the problems you are addressing — unfair and inhumane treatment of the disenfranchised, especially minorities and children — persist. Is there a disconnect here? What might happen if the energy expended on recognizing your accomplishments were directed at actual solutions?
A: Well I think that many of the problems that persist result from indifference. We don’t view each person’s victimization equally. We tend to measure how we’re doing by how we treat the rich, the powerful and the privileged instead of how we treat the poor, the disabled and incarcerated. I appreciate the growing recognition I’ve received not because it’s important to me, but if it reflects growing awareness and concern about the issues I address, I’m encouraged by that. However, the true heroes in my world are the people who have been abused, neglected, wrongly convicted and condemned who have found the strength to keep fighting, to not give up. People who have lost loved ones to violence and crime but insist on compassion and mercy, people who have endured hardship and anguish but still encourage those around them have a lot to teach all of us. I meet a lot of people with these traits and the best I can do is reflect the importance of their lives and witness.