The Social Injustice of the American Criminal Justice System Presented in Just Mercy, a Memoir by Bryan Stevenson

American society is obsessed with safety. We spend millions of dollars implementing systems to try and keep citizens safe. What is often overlooked is the corruption that lies within America’s criminal justice system, the transgressions that occur daily, and the way these issues disrupt thousands of innocent lives each year. In his narrative Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson brings to light many of the issues surrounding America’s criminal justice system. His personal accounts of his own experiences in America’s criminal justice system reveal that criminal and social justice, race, and mercy are all closely interrelated in American society. These issues are all in their own way classic ideals of America. Just Mercy demonstrates the need for American Society to recognize the social injustice that happens in America’s criminal proceedings–based on discrepancies in race and wealth–and show mercy and compassion to fight injustice.

Many American citizens would associate criminal justice with a feeling of security. It is a system our government has supposedly implemented to catch criminals and put them behind bars, leaving people to go to bed at night feeling safe. However, Stevenson takes a different approach to criminal justice. Rather than point out the benefits, Stevenson talks about the injustice that occurs within our supposed criminal “justice” system. Stevenson practices law in Alabama and Georgia, two Deep South states with an underlying cultural current that impacts his work significantly.

Many clients that Stevenson represents are African American, and part of a community that is still trying to recover from legal segregation, such as the Jim Crow laws. In addition to recovering from Southern Reconstruction, the African American community still experiences severe hate crimes. This element of racism leads to injustice in Stevenson’s cases, where impoverished black teenagers are often wrongfully accused or punished in extreme ways. The main story line that Just Mercy follows is that of Walter McMillian, a black man who was put on death row for a murder that he did not commit. Despite overwhelming proof of Walter’s innocence, the racist culture in Alabama meant that many law officials simply overlooked evidence. Stevenson notes that “reading the record had shown (him) that there were people who were willing to ignore evidence, logic, and common sense to convict someone and reassure the community that the crime had been solved and the murderer punished,” (Stevenson 112). This shows that in this case, and many cases similar to the McMillian case, American Society was willing to overlook truth and justice in order to obtain a sense of false security. The law officials didn’t care if they caught the right criminal, as long as they has a scapegoat, especially if said suspect was African American and didn’t have the means to afford a great lawyer.

Closely associated with the idea of criminal justice is that of social justice. Stevenson’s book shows that in practicing social justice, one can arrive at criminal justice that is not corrupt. Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson dedicated his life to creating social and criminal justice. For Stevenson, much of that was building rapport and trust with his clients. Despite his overwhelming schedule, Stevenson always became close to his clients, stating in his book that “we talked about food (Walter) liked, jobs he’d worked when he was younger. We talked about race and power, the things we saw that were funny, and the things we saw that were sad” (Stevenson 103). Stevenson also tells Walter that “everybody needs help, so we’re trying”” (Stevenson 103). Trying to improve the world, one life at a time, was how Stevenson made a difference and how he practiced social justice. He tells a story about how he represented a young boy who had shot his abusive stepfather (Stevenson 121), and stories about children that were tried as adults and sentenced to die in prison. Writing about finding, exposing, and attempting to reverse these injustices painted a clear picture of what social justice really means: Fairness and equality for everyone, despite whatever race or socioeconomic status a person comes from.

Unfortunately, racial divides do play a large role in creating injustice. This reveals the hypocrisy of America—we value diversity, calling ourselves the “big melting pot.” We value justice and equality, two principles our country was founded on. Yet despite all this, legal officials are still holding ridiculous charges against men such as Walter, simply because they don’t care about finding justice for a black man, and they can get away with it. Stevenson references a W.E.B. Du Bois story about the lynching of a black man who had become a teacher. Stevenson ponders the impacts of the lynching on the community of that man, speculating that “There would be more distrust, more animosity, and more injustice” (Stevenson 101). In a similar way, Stevenson believes that everyone in Walter’s hometown, Monroeville, will judge the black community based solely on Walter’s convictions: “Walter’s family and most poor black people in his community were similarly burdened by Walter’s conviction… The pain in that trailer was tangible–I could feel it.

The community seemed desperate for some hope of justice. The realization left me anxious but determined” (Stevenson 101). In this way, it becomes evident that injustice in these small southern towns is a vicious circle. The wealthier and powerful white people refuse to allow black folk truly “equal” rights, demeaning them such as Walter was demeaned, ignoring evidence and keeping them in prison when they don’t necessarily belong there. Prisons that are for profit help make white people wealthier, and keep the blacks poor so that the African American community has little chance to break the circle of white people continuing to subjugate black people. Even Stevenson, a middle class man and practicing lawyer experiences hate crimes based on his race. In his memoir, Stevenson relates an experience where he was held at gunpoint after listening to a song in his car, simply because there had been petty crime in his neighborhood recently. The officers who attempted to arrest Stevenson blatantly broke the law, and while Stevenson knew this because of his legal background, he was too frightened to challenge it. Looking back on the incident the next day, Stevenson comments that I was a twenty-eight-year-old lawyer who had worked on police misconduct cases. I had the judgement to speak calmly to the officer when he threatened to shoot me. When I thought about what I would have done when I was sixteen years old or nineteen or even twenty-four, I was scared to realize that I might have run. The more I thought about it, the more concerned I became about all the young black boys and men in that neighborhood. Did they know not to run? (Stevenson 43).

There are many stories in the news that have circulated recently about what happens when young black boys do try and run out of fright, and violent occurrences that happen between white police officers and young black teenagers. This level of violence is not seen against young white teenagers in similar conditions. As progressive as America prides itself on being, there is still an underlying tone of racism, and this racism negatively impacts many poor black people that are wrongly accused and convicted of crime.

However, one of the most remarkable things about Stevenson’s memoir is his hope for humanity despite the injustice he has witnessed. This leads us to the fourth idea of mercy. Stevenson shows that only through human mercy and compassion are we able to overcome the horrors related to race and socioeconomic divides that exist in the prison system. Stevenson points out that none of us should be judged solely on our worst moment, and that only in realizing our own personal flaws can we accept others as they come. Mercy is vital to humanitarian existence, because it means seeing people as human beings, rather as being poor, or black, or mentally ill. Not all of us are very similar to one another, but we are all just human, and in realizing that, we can have mercy for others and fight injustice. We see this in one of the stories Stevenson tells, featuring a conservative prison guard that had the confederate flag tattooed on his body. The prison guard is cruel towards Stevenson because of his race, and cruel toward the inmates. Avery Jenkins, who Stevenson represents in this trial, experienced severe abuse in the foster care system as a child. When the prison guard learns of Mr. Jenkins background, he feels mercy, because he too was abused as a child. The guard explains that

‘It was kind of difficult for me to be in that courtroom to hear what y’ all was talking about. I came up from foster care, you know. I came up from foster care too… Man, I didn’t think anybody had it as bad as me… But listening to what you was saying about Avery made me realize that there were other people who had it as bad as I did. I guess even worse’ (Stevenson 201).

The guard experiences mercy because he realizes that Avery is another human being who has experienced similar traumas in life. If someone who is seemingly so closed-minded can change their views to show others kindness and mercy, than so can America as a society. This is why mercy is key in ending injustice and promoting equality.

Injustice happens in the world. Injustice is almost as American a theme as equality, because in America, it is believed that one may have their own opinion, even if it is hateful. However, on a much broader scale, it is also American to experience mercy. Because mercy is a human trait that we all possess, and experiencing mercy and compassion is how society can improve itself and make the world a better place. Will injustice ever end? Probably not. Discrimination has always happened in history, and may continue happening for hundreds of years. Mercy is not giving up because there will never be change. Mercy is appreciating the small changes, and seeing each person on an individual level. Society is made up of individuals, and if one person at a time can be helped, than gradually society will also be helped. Racism is still prevalent in America today, sending hundreds of black men and women to jail for crimes they did not commit. Similarly, children or mentally ill people who are in need of compassionate rehabilitation find themselves locked in jail, penniless and defenseless. There is no excuse for this criminal injustice, just as there is no excuse to ignore mercy. Through mercy is the strength and will to make the world a better place.

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The Social Injustice of the American Criminal Justice System Presented in Just Mercy, a Memoir by Bryan Stevenson. (2022, Nov 26). Retrieved June 13, 2024 , from

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