Book Summary

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

In his 2014 memoir Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson documents his career dealing with the criminal justice system and its history of unjustly targeting and incarcerating Black Americans.

Just Mercy is a book about the broken criminal justice system (CJS), arguing that the institution prioritizes criminalizing individuals over serving justice. Today, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Despite making up just 5% of the world’s population, the US has nearly 25% of the world’s prison population, with 3 million people in jail or prison. Unfortunately, the CJS is deeply intertwined with the US’s history of racism, leading to African Americans being incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of white Americans. In fact, one in every three black men born in the US can expect to spend time in prison. 

Privatizing prisons has led to increased spending only to keep people in prison and benefit private service companies while hurting individuals, stripping them of access to rehabilitation. Private prison builders and prison service companies pay governments to create new crimes, impose longer and harsher sentences, and keep people in jail to increase their own profits. Individuals are being stripped from their families and communities and are being locked up to benefit executives in the prison industry. Instead of spending money on public services, education, and welfare, state and federal governments have spent nearly $80 billion on jails and prisons to keep people there for extended periods of time. Through the stories of Americans who were punished too harshly by a partial, broken system, Bryan Stevenson sheds light on a system lacking mercy and failing to see the humanity in others. 

Of the many stories the book follows, that of Walter McMillian, an innocent man on Alabama’s death row, stands out. McMillian was born to poor sharecroppers in Monroe County, and despite not having a formal education was able to start a successful lumber business in the ‘70s. After having an affair with a married white woman Karen, his reputation suffered as interracial relationships were heavily looked down upon in the south. In a messy divorce between Karen and her husband, McMillian was forced to testify in court. Following his court appearance, two women in Monroe County were murdered. Karen and ex-criminal Ralph Myers falsely blamed McMillian for the murder. Roped into a murder, Walter was forced to undergo a long and unfair trial for nearly 6 years. 

In his trial, McMillian was criminalized by law officials, who used any method possible to land him in prison. Through false witnesses and the ignorance of his alibi, he was punished with pretrial detention on death row, despite the practice being illegal. Prolonged for several years, McMillian’s fight for justice was not easy. After the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals turned down four appeals, a fifth appeal was successful in proving his innocence. Though he was able to get justice in a system pitted against him, millions of innocent Black Americans are not nearly as lucky and are sentenced to prison for life or the death penalty after being falsely accused. 

Through stories like McMillian’s, Stevenson reminds us of the humanity in people convicted of crimes, and the dangers of a discriminatory system. He also reminds us that even when a defendant is guilty, today’s CJS punishes Americans with no regard to their childhood, experiences, trauma, or external factors that may have contributed to the crime. By reducing individuals to their worst mistakes, we fail to see the complexity in individuals and focus on punishment rather than helping them recover and progress beyond their mistakes. Stevenson urges us to reform the CJS and demonetize it. He argues that by addressing mental health and substance abuse like we would treat physical illnesses, we can emphasize public growth and safety. Instead of prolonged time in prison, rehabilitation can give people a second chance to grow and re-enter society. A system run by people trying to profit off of the suffering of people in prison can never truly serve justice. 

Applications: Just Mercy is an excellent resource to understand race relations in the United States and how embedded racism is in many institutions in our country. When handling questions about systemic racism and justice, extempers can use Just Mercy to show how broken the CJS is currently before explaining how to reform it, through an emphasis on rehabilitation and reintegrating individuals convicted of crimes back into society. This resource can also help develop the background in an introduction and is a great way to understand the CJS through stories of individuals who have gone through it.

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