At a young age, Bryan Stevenson, a criminal defense lawyer, established a practice focused on freeing people Alabama’s notorious prisons and on death row from execution. While the rest of the country was slowly killing less people sentenced to death by the courts, Alabama’s execution rate went the opposite direction.
In 2014, he released a book about his journey and The Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit he started to represent death row inmates, that covers many angles of the justice system. It is a heartbreaking book which lays bare the human torture and cost wreaked by our broken justice system. But deeper than the facts and injustice held in Stevenson’s pages, he asks us all to deepen our empathy in the most uncomfortable way. Haven’t we all asked for mercy and redemption at one point in our lives? Don’t we all deserve mercy? Aren’t we all better than our worst day?
America destroys people, and Stevenson tells stories of many of his clients obliterated by poverty, systemic racism and abuse. People who you cannot believe were still breathing by the time they got to him and asked for criminal defense representation.
These people, broken by the state, mental illness, disability and poverty, instead of being met with healing, compassion and accountability are thrown away into prisons that violate numerous human rights, and are either sent to execution or returned to society more abused and traumatized than ever before.
“In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice,” Stevenson writes.
This is the clunky, sticky work of abolition and peering into the justice system: it demands we see people behind bars or otherwise caught up as no different from our own broken selves. It asks us to look deeply into their lives to understand people despite their crimes or level of innocence.
“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent,” he writes. Stevenson goes further to say that very brokenness is what makes us human.
How are you broken? When have you received compassion and mercy when you were undeserving of it? What makes us believe that we can deny the same to anyone else?
What could it mean to treat people with love and compassion instead of punishment? How different would our world look?
Stevenson chronicles how he witnessed victims of violent crime and their loved ones pressured “to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute.” This often leaves the families without closure and throws the defendants life away. Stevenson confronts the reader:
“We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”
And possibly this is the only way to break our cycle of harm:
“The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent — strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering.”
What does mercy mean to you and where does it fit in your life?