Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)

It seems cliché or exaggerated, but I can’t think of a book that’s ever affected me this deeply. I’ve had emotional reactions to books before, but this was different. Several times I had to put the book down because I couldn’t stop crying. It felt so visceral I almost couldn’t breathe. If this wasn’t a library book, I might have actually thrown it across the room. The more I learn about America’s criminal justice system, the more baffled and frustrated and angry I become at how we* can fail people in such spectacular and cruel ways.

(*I almost put “it” here, but the point of this book is about recognizing humanity. When we pretend like we aren’t complicit in the system’s failings, we absolve ourselves of responsibility to change.)

Title – Just Mercy: A story of justice and redemption

Author – Bryan Stevenson

Page count – 314

Rating – Buy. No question. This would be a great book to use for a discussion group, especially at church (Although, while his faith background clearly informs his worldview, it’s not the main point of this story – this is a lesson for anyone and everyone).

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit practice that defends people our society has deemed unworthy of help or redemption – from people wrongly convicted simply because they were too poor to afford quality legal representation, to young children tried, sentenced, and imprisoned as adults. The main story woven through this book is that of Walter McMillian, a man sentenced to death row for a crime he insists he didn’t commit. One thing I appreciate is that each time I felt too overwhelmed to continue reading, Stevenson would turn to a story of hope with an ending as “happy” as this mess can provide.

While the focus of the EJI has expanded in recent years, it has always paid special attention to the death penalty. Stevenson turns around the question we usually ask when debating the death penalty:

“[The] death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?”

There is certainly no question that many people are treated in cruel and unfair ways by our criminal justice system…But what of those who did commit the crimes with which they were charged and sentenced? Do we have a right to kill someone just because they killed someone else? It’s an important question to consider, especially when there’s a real risk of killing someone who was wrongfully convicted.

The solution Stevenson puts forth throughout the book is empathy and compassion. When we can see a person’s full humanity instead of seeing them only as their crime, we can come to an understanding of their potential, worth, and ability to be redeemed. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

“I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” (p. 18)

Related recommendations:

The Cross and the Lynching Tree (James Cone)

Gospel According to the Klan (Kelly J. Baker)

Stand Your Ground (Kelly Brown Douglas)

The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)

Also, I haven’t had a chance to read the full report, but this link was shared by a source I trust regarding info/research on mass incarceration and inequality in the criminal justice system. It’s worth a read.



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