Published by Random House Publishing Group on October 21st 2014
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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.