Just Mercy is a showcase for the U.S. injustice system, particularly but not only, toward poor black people. His book looks back over some incredible cases he took during the past 30 years.
Stevenson, near retirement, has spent his entire career helping people on death row, particularly in Alabama, which has no public defenders! He quickly understood the U.S. system of incarceration, with the highest rate in the world.
Eventually he and others created the Equal Justice Initiative as a way to fight the death penalty, especially as it is applied to poor black prisoners in the U.S. If a victim of murder is white, most states give the death penalty five times more often to a black person convicted in the crime, even ten times more often, than a white person convicted of a similar crime.
And it would be his organization that finally got the Supreme Court to end life imprisonment without parole for children.
Stevenson does not only write of death row cases; he also has chapters on the growth of imprisoning mentally ill people. Those mentally ill in the U.S. might get a bed in a rehab hospital. Fifty years ago there was one bed for every 300 people; now there is one rehab bed for every 3,000 people, so it is little wonder that half of all prisoners are diagnosed as suffering mental illness. Some death row prisoners are deeply mentally ill but, if the state chooses, it can simply ignore the evidence. These are cases Stevenson highlights.
He also shows the growth in the incarceration of poor women. For example, poor women who lose a child at birth or shortly thereafter, women who can’t afford pre-natal care, may end up accused of murdering their child. Women may end up in prison when they defend themselves against abusive partners. And once in prison, they face rape and beatings from prison guards.
At one point, Stevenson writes that with tears running down his cheeks after losing another person to the death penalty, “As I sat there, I thought myself a fool for having tried to fix these situations that were so fatally broken. It’s time to stop. I can’t do this anymore.
“For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear and anger.
“We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.”
Finally Stevenson writes, “The true measure of the character [of a society] is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
As this book shows, American capitalist society condemns itself: A system that creates poverty and brokenness, and then locks up, tortures, and kills those it creates.
Just Mercy appeared in paperback last month. It does not make for light reading, but it makes for better understanding of what it means to be caught in a justice system where there is no justice.
The review above is taken from the Sept 14-28 issue of the US Marxist fortnightly The Spark.