Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy by Bryan StevensonJust Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Published by Random House Publishing Group on October 21st 2014
Source: Library
Pages: 352
Buy from IndieBound


When I first encountered Bryan Stevenson, I was tearing pages out of Smithsonian Magazine. Before any reading material made it to my students at the state juvenile correctional facility, I first had to remove any questionable content. Smithsonian was generally safe, but I was quickly drawn into a story profiling Stevenson and Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us As a Society. After finishing the story myself, I made sure it found its way to as many of my students as possible. I brought up many of its major points in my history and government classes, hoping to spark discussion and bring light to recent changes in juvenile law.

Stevenson’s new book follows him from a poor upbringing in Delaware, though uncertain years in college and into his early career as a lawyer, where he quickly discovers the country’s desperate need for real representation for the poor. In chapters that range from heartbreaking and infuriating to uplifting and hopeful, he details his time working with prisoners on death row and juveniles facing endless life sentences. Though he does spend time outlining serious flaws in our current judicial system, for the majority of the book Stevenson shifts the discussion from political to personal. Throughout Just Mercy, we meet people who are more than just a rap sheet, headline and sentence. From his first face-to-face meeting with a death row inmate, Stevenson learns that the people he works with have histories, personalities, feelings and hopes that are often clouded by their crimes.

“‘It’s been so strange, Bryan. More people have asked me what they can do to help me in the last fourteen hours of my life than ever asked me in the years when I was coming up.’ He looked at me, and his face twisted in confusion.

I gave Herbert one last long hug, but I was thinking about what he said. I thought of all the evidence that the court had never reviewed about his childhood. I was thinking about all of the trauma and difficulty that had followed him home from Vietnam. I couldn’t help but ask myself, Where were these people when he really needed them?”

I’ve carried quite a bit of guilt since leaving my job earlier this year, as my reasons had little to do with my students and much more to do with the bureaucracy they were caught in. But Herbert’s words are an amazing reminder of the power of compassion at every point in life, something I constantly hope we can learn to embrace as a country. Just Mercy is a book more than capable of teaching us.

You can hear more about Just Mercy through Bryan Stevenson’s interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.

  • Wow – did you used to teach in a correctional facility? This must have really hit home for you. I’m not sure this one is up my alley, but I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    • I taught high school social studies through the Department of Juvenile Justice for two years, so it was definitely a personal reading experience for me. But I also think it’s quite universal and I really wish I could get everyone to read it.

  • Lisa

    I definitely want to check this out! Thanks for the great review. I’d love to hear about your time working at the juvenile correction center. Have you ever read “True Notebooks” by Mark Salzman? I found that memoir provided great insight into the kids who are often in juvenile facilities.

  • I’ve been hearing really great things about this book. It sounds really fascinating and important.

  • What I find so frustrating about the system (in Canada, anyway) is that you can’t usually get the help you need until it is too late. So sad. Sounds like a book worth reading!

    • It’s so much like that here, too. Even many of the juveniles I taught were facing multi-year sentences and missing out on such vital points in their development in situations that could have easily been prevented through earlier intervention.

  • Sounds like a powerful and important book. You’ve just put this on my radar. Maybe I’ll give a copy to my mom, who has been writing grant proposals for a group working with incarcerated adults and juveniles. She’s been very interested in the topic, but I don’t think she’s seen this book.

  • Jennine G.

    This sounds comparable to the education battlefield alright…even minus the correctional setting.

    • There are definitely some deep connections, and so much education could do to help if given the proper resources.

  • Wow. I must read this book. Really loved reading your thoughts on this one. (Nice opening sentence, too. Ha!)

    • It’s just SO good, I think you’d love it.
      And I’m a master at catching inappropriate pages in magazines ;)

  • Words for Worms

    This sounds fascinating! Compassion is always a great lesson!

  • Fwoof, this sounds pretty wrenching. Another thing that’s so sad about the criminal justice system (and MANY of the systems that comprise our social safety net) is that bureaucracy and apathy and incompetence drive out a lot of people who would otherwise be eager and willing to help in those ways (like you, it sounds like). It’s such a shame and a waste.

  • My boss at work simply loved this book and hearing her and your thoughts has me itching to read it!

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