By Vanessa Woy and Claire Dalzon
Getting up close to problems, changing America’s narrative, protecting hope and doing uncomfortable things, author Bryan Stevenson said, are four keys to fixing the justice system.
The author of the critically acclaimed book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption spoke at a Unity Day event on Oct. 14 in a Cavalla Room packed with 650 students and local residents.
“We have to get proximate to the problems that we are concerned with,” he said. “I am persuaded that there is power in proximity. We cannot solve problems from a distance.”
That is what he has been doing since 1983 when he first walked into a maximum-security prison. The young Harvard Law student had been sent to a Georgia death row to reassure a condemned man. They formed a surprising bond.
He then decided to dedicate his life to representing those who are wrongly accused and abused by the justice system.
A majority of the 2.4 million people in U.S. prisons are minorities, he said. African-American prisoners receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white.
“We have to change the narrative in this country about race,” Stevenson said. “I believe the great evil of American slavery is the narrative of racial difference, the ideology of white supremacy, that we created to legitimize slavery.”
By founding the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, Stevenson created a network that provides legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted or who are unable to afford a sufficient defense. He brings them hope.
“There is no right to counsel for people on death row, that’s one of the fictions that most people don’t appreciate.” he said. “So in this country there are people literally dying for legal assistance.”
He described his clients as broken — by poverty, disabilities, racism, abuse and neglect. “They are all broken. It was then that I realized I work in a broken system.”
Stevenson concluded his speech with a call to action, he insisted America must widen its lens to capture the entire picture.
“We need to commit ourselves to truth and reconciliation in this country,” he said. “We’ve never done that, and because of that we are suffering.”
Aasim Johnson, a student worker for the Office of Multicultural Affairs, which hosted the event, praised the speech. “It was encouraging to see the Rider student body finally come together to have a real discussion about race and how it influences the criminal justice system in this country,” Johnson said. “It’s never too late to talk about these issues. ”