If there was one thing Bryan Stevenson could say to legislators when they’re writing laws to punish people convicted of crimes, the acclaimed writer and lawyer told a crowd at Duke University Wednesday night, he would encourage them to push past their anger and fear so they can see how much pain they are inflicting on people who wind up behind bars.
“Our policymakers actually think they can put crimes in prison,” Stevenson said. “You can only put a person in prison. And what I want to talk to them about is that people are not crimes. They can commit crimes, but they are not crimes, and if we believe that, then we cannot believe that these sentences are just.”
Last night Stevenson sat with Duke Chapel Dean Luke A. Powery for a public conversation titled “Seeking Justice and Redemption in the Public Square.”
Stevenson is the author of the popular memoir Just Mercy and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal services to people denied a fair trial, including those who may have been wrongly convicted of their crimes. The organization challenges the death penalty, provides reentry assistance to formerly incarcerated people who are going home and works to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the U.S.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s work has led to reversals, relief or release from prison for more than 135 people wrongly sent to death row. The group has also won important legal cases getting rid of excessive sentences, exonerating innocent people on death row, addressing the abuse of incarcerated and mentally ill people, and helping children prosecuted as adults for criminal charges.
Wednesday’s conversation mostly centered on justice and mercy. Stevenson talked about his work with people on death row, the emotional toll such work takes — and the importance of doing it, especially in a country that refuses to reckon with its past, in a time when democracy in the U.S. is in peril.
“I feel like we’ve been allowed to be silent about things about which no one should be silent. You can’t have a genocide of indigenous people [where] millions of people die and not talk about it,” he said. You can’t enslave people for two and a half centuries and not talk about it, not understand it; you can’t lynch thousands of Black people and cause six million to flee the American South… and not address the trauma and the injury that that created.”
Central to Stevenson’s work is the idea that everyone is worthy of justice, compassion and mercy, even those he referred to as “the broken,” the men, women and children he represents as an attorney. People are more than the worst thing they have ever done, Stevenson said; a person not just a liar when they tell a lie, nor are they just a killer when they take another person’s life. People, Stevenson was saying, contain multitudes.
“To be broken is to not mean that you should be condemned,” he said. “And in fact, it’s the broken among us that can sometimes teach us what recovery is all about, what redemption is all about. It’s the broken that can teach us what it means to be fully human because they have experienced the inhumanity of being crushed by something.”
Stevenson’s visit at Duke — co-sponsored by Duke Chapel, the Sanford School, and the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law — features two speeches and a lunch event that will take place at 12:30 p.m. Thursday in Room 3043 at Duke Law.
Stevenson is speaking at Duke again tonight at 5:00, in a separate address titled “Standing for Equal Justice.” To register for the livestream, click here.