How can we improve the criminal justice system? Why do we need to rethink our idea of justice?
In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson suggests that progress toward making the criminal justice system fair is possible. But first, we need to have a clear understanding of justice and the legal system’s conception of just punishment.
Here’s how to improve the criminal justice system, one step at a time.
Steps Toward Progress: Confronting Ignorance and Legal Hurdles
Here we’ll first examine the four institutions that Stevenson argues have distorted our understanding of justice, then we’ll discuss more specific legal challenges to learn how to improve the criminal justice system.
1. Correcting our Understanding of Justice
According to Stevenson, four institutions have affected our view of justice, especially in relation to race: slavery, convict leasing, the Jim Crow era, and mass incarceration. He argues that these institutions have corrupted our understanding of justice, explaining society’s complacency with unjust punishments.
Institution #1: Slavery
First, Stevenson claims that slavery—and its legacy of racial terror, in which Black men were publicly lynched throughout the South—has influenced our conception of justice. In particular, he argues that frequent lynchings of Black men led to the modern death penalty, as it redirected the ire of white southerners that previously culminated in lynchings. By recognizing this connection, Stevenson implies that we can help undermine the broad public support for capital punishment.
Institution #2: Convict Leasing
Next, Stevenson discusses convict leasing—the practice of convicting former slaves of frivolous crimes to lease them to private businesses while incarcerated. Convict leasing, Stevenson argues, has effectively led to the re-enslavement of former slaves. Consequently, he implies that it’s responsible for our complacency with the modern prison labor system, in which prisoners work for little to no wages.
Institution #3: The Jim Crow Era
Additionally, Stevenson argues that we fail to recognize the legacy of the Jim Crow Era, in which state laws legalized racial segregation. In particular, he observes that while we readily acknowledge the achievements of the civil rights movement, we don’t acknowledge the lasting harm that segregation causes by inflicting daily insults and humiliation on Black people. In turn, he suggests that to understand the discrimination that currently underlies the justice system, we must understand these lasting harms.
Institution #4: Mass Incarceration
Lastly, Stevenson argues that mass incarceration has made us complacent with the disproportionate imprisonment of people of color, as well as unjust practices like the targeting of impoverished communities for drug crimes. To fully grasp the shortcomings of our justice system, he implies we must reckon with the reality of mass incarceration.
2. Challenging Extreme Punishments of Children
Although Stevenson argues that our conception of justice has been distorted, he concedes that there has been some progress: After hearing Stevenson’s arguments, the US Supreme Court ruled that sentencing children to life without parole for non-homicide offenses is unconstitutional.
First, Stevenson notes that in 2005, the US Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to punish children with the death penalty, citing fundamental differences between children and adults that made children less culpable. In turn, this ruling provided a foundation for challenging juvenile life-without-parole sentences.
To challenge such sentences, Stevenson had to argue they were cruel and unusual, thus violating the Eighth Amendment.
According to Stevenson, such sentences were cruel because they didn’t consider children’s diminished culpability. He cited evidence from neurology, psychology, and sociology suggesting that children suffer from impaired judgment and are especially susceptible to negative influences. Moreover, he argued that increased dopamine receptivity leads to increased risk-taking around puberty, meaning they’re vulnerable to making poor decisions. These factors, Stevenson claims, reflect something we already recognize: Children lack the capacity for mature decisions that adults have.
Because their judgment is impaired, children are less culpable for their actions. Consequently, Stevenson argued, sentencing them to life without parole constitutes cruel punishment. However, Stevenson notes that punishment must also be unusual to violate the Constitution; because 2,500 children in the US were sentenced to life without parole, it proved harder to argue that such punishments were unusual.
So, Stevenson focused on a narrower subset—the 200 children sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses, like Joe Sullivan. Despite initial resistance from lower courts, the US Supreme Court decided to review Stevenson’s case in 2009. Later, in 2010, they delivered their ruling in Graham v. Florida: It’s unconstitutional to sentence children who didn’t commit homicides to life without parole.
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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Bryan Stevenson's "Just Mercy" at Shortform.
Here's what you'll find in our full Just Mercy summary:
- An examination of the justice system's failures toward marginalized populations
- Examples of criminal cases from history that illistrate the failures
- Possible solutions for repairing the justice system in America