Just Mercy: The Lack Of Mercy In Justice System

In his memoir, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson writes about the injustices of the American criminal justice system. Stevenson is a lawyer and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. His organization offers free legal services to those who are unable to afford legal representation. In his memoir, he accounts for the people who he represented throughout his career. Most of the people Stevenson represents have been wrongfully convicted and/or sentenced to the death penalty. Through these stories, Stevenson exposes how the criminal justice system is manipulated to criminalize people of color, children, the mentally ill, the disabled, the poor, and many other marginalized people. Furthermore, Stevenson argues that mercy will allows us to break violent cycles of punishment in the criminal justice system. Stevenson successfully presents a raw, emotional, and powerful insight into the lives of those who have been wrongfully condemned by the criminal justice system.

The central legal case that Bryan Stevenson follows in his memoir is that of Walter McMillan. Walter was a black man living in Alabama. He was born to a poor family but found success in his adulthood with his small business. Walter was falsely accused of murdering a white woman. He was sentenced to death by Judge Robert E. Lee, although there was evidence to prove his innocence. Stevenson fought Walter’s case until he was released in 1993. A few years after his release, “Walter’s decline came quickly.” Walter was diagnosed with “advancing dementia, likely trauma induced [which] would need constant care.” When Stevenson tried to get help for Walter, “most places wouldn't take him because he had been convicted of a felony.”Even though Walter had been proven innocent, people still believed that “once you go to prison...you become a dangerous person, and they don't want nothing to do with you.” Because of this, Walter was sent to “live with a relative who could provide consistent care.” Since the facilities did not want to take care of an outsider, Walter became his family’s responsibility.

This scenario is similar to how people were treated in the poorhouses. Before they could enter the poorhouses, poor people had to “find relatives who could assist [them] before getting any relief.” This prevented poor people from becoming social and economic burdens. By using this model, poorhouses ensured that they became the last resort for those seeking poor relief. This alludes to the treatment of Walter at the care facilities. The first steps taken to seek care for Walter were to find family members who could care for him. When that was not possible, Stevenson and Walter’s family began to look for care facilities. Since Walter was considered a “dangerous criminal” who didn’t belong in society, he was turned away from many care homes. This is parallel to how transients were considered as not belonging, so they were denied any aid from the local parishes. Many folks were warned out and sent back to their original place of inhabitance. Similarly, Walter was “warned out” of most facilities due to his staus as an outsider and as someone who didn't belong in society. Without help from their families, both Walter and the people from the poorhouse era would have struggled to receive any kind of aid.

Throughout the book there are other mentions of folks who have been wrongfully criminalized. Some of the cases that stand out are the stories of incarcerated children. One story is that of Joe Sullivan, a 13 year old who was charged for rape and sentenced to life in an adult prison. Even though he was just an adolescent boy with a traumatic background, Joe was tried and convicted as an adult. Therefore, Joe was forced to serve the adult sentence. Similarly, during the poorhouse era many children were bound to indentured servitude and forced to “undertake serious labor.” “By the time they reached adolescence, children were considered “apprentice adults”, “expected to labor nearly as hard as adults.” Furthermore, during the new poor law era, many young children were forced to work in factories. Since these children were able-bodied, they were required to complete tasks alongside the adults. The treatment of children as adults in the criminal justice system and the poorhouse shows that the state did not value childhood. By equating children to adults, the poorhouses were able to abuse their labor. Similarly, by equating children to adults, the state was able to criminalize poor children, without taking other conditions of their situation into consideration.

Today there are laws that prevent child labor and that prevent children under the age of 18 from recieving the death penalty. Although actions have been taken in our current society, it is important to recognize the parallels between the past and the present. Through Bryan Stevenson’s book, we can see how the poorhouse morals play a role in seeking aid from our current day institutions. Furthermore, we can see how the treatment of children in the criminal justice system is corrupt. The courts can pick and choose what they see as criminal and noncriminal, just as the poorhouses did. Through these parallels, we can see how the poorhouse morale is intertwined into our current legal system..

Bryan Stevenson’s explicit and emotional storytelling humazinzes the incarcerated folks who have been wrongfully criminalized. His memoir attaches names and real life stories to statistics and number that we often hear about. Stevenson connects his readers through this emotional lenses and exposes the injustices embedded withing our criminal “justice” system. By doing so, Steven allows his reader to reflect on the idea of having mercy for the incarcerated. Having mercy means taking people’s past into consideration. Having mercy means forgiving people for making mistakes, because at the end of the day we are human. Having mercy means helping those who cannot help themselves. By examining the poor law reform and poorhouses through this lens, we can see how the lack of mercy in that era have shaped our current merciless criminal justice system.  

16 December 2021
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