Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014) is a collection of stories of people harmed in the criminal system in contemporary U.S. The stories are vividly told and the emotional pain and grace are deeply communicated to strengthen the author’s plea for real justice and the consistent application of grace and mercy.
The title is misleading. Just Mercy is a series of stories of injustice and non-mercy, and the author’s efforts to bring justice and the correction of injustice with the need for freedom through mercy. All the stories are examples of unjust charging, conviction, incarceration, and post-prison monitoring, and connected hardships.
The stories are well written and emotionally gripping. The focus of the stories is on the injustice at all levels and the excellent efforts of the author and his colleagues to remedy the injustices in individual cases. There is little room in the narration for ambiguity or the good intentions of the public institutions and processes.
The author’s focus is local, regional and national in that order. The author does not address the universal, and international dimensions of the problems identified in the author’s more limited geographical focus. Criminal law is a universal problem of public policy and decisions, including the U.S., Chad, Poland, China, Greece, and Namibia. The world needs practical leadership in providing justice and mercy in the criminal law to replace citizen outrage and sympathy that is well-generated by this book..
The author’s eloquent message for the U.S. includes:
- Some criminal laws are wrong.
- Some people are wrongly charged (overcharging).
- Some people are wrongly convicted (not guilty).
- Some people are wrongly sentenced (extreme and excessive).
- Sentencing non-prison options should be available to Judges.
- Processes are cumbersome.
- Punishments are excessive.
- Parole, rehabilitation, and services (health, drug, education) should be enhanced.
- Post-prison punishments in denial of public program services (food, public housing, employment, voting) should be removed.
- Children are wrongly placed in adult prisons.
- Criminal defendant financial wealth is outcome determinative (Rich win: Poor lose).
- There is corruption in the criminal process (financial and political).
- Public emotions involve fear, anger, abusiveness, and mean-spiritedness.
The author does not provide a guide to systematic reformation of the criminal law system at the national, regional, state or local levels in the U.S. In this way, the author leaves the reader emotionally wrought up, but without a constructive release benefiting the whole of society, beyond supporting his organization.
The author’s eloquent message implies a practical agenda of citizen advocacy that includes:
- Reduce criminal laws.
- Revise criminal laws.
- Citizen accountability mechanisms for abusive criminal prosecutors. (overcharging).
- Qualified legal counsel for indigent criminal defendants.
- Citizen review mechanisms for sentences.
- Sentencing non-prison and community options available to Judges.
- Expedited criminal court procedures.
- Enhanced parole, rehabilitation, and services (health, drug, education) for prisoners.
- Citizen review mechanisms for criminal sentencing.
- Accountability mechanisms for wrongful criminal convictions.
- Post-prison access to food, public housing, employment, and voting.
- Separation of child prisoners from adult prisoners in prisons.
- Public education about criminal law and the connected emotions involving fear, anger, abusiveness, and mean-spiritedness.
This implicit agenda needs the author’s next book describing the specific citizen advocacy for permanent mechanisms for particular improvements.
The author advocates against mass incarceration, but the definition of mass incarceration is left vague. Similarly, the definition of redemption is left hopeful and somewhat unclear.
The emotional theme of the book is the need for mercy rooted in hopefulness, freely given, empowering, liberating, and transformative when directed to the undeserving, which is all of us generally and the people in the criminal system particularly.
Quakers: There is no mention of Quakers in the book. This is a reminder that Quakers have lost their visible role in prison reform and criminal injustice in the 18th century.
- What do Quakers have to offer for improving criminal justice in the U.S.?
- Are there models for the application of mercy to the criminal law in the U.S.?
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014)