Posted on 11 April 2016 Return
Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. He is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.
What set you on the path of activism?
I grew up in a poor rural community where the history of racial injustice was very, very evident. Schools were segregated, housing was segregated, and churches were segregated. I think the burden of segregation was something I understood from a very young age. I mean mean, my parents were humiliated by Jim Crow laws.
We were excluded from a lot of things. When integration came, that was a really big step forward, but I don’t think it changed my perception that there was still this burden of inequality and disadvantage that had been created by a history of racial inequality. So when I graduated from college, I very much wanted to develop the skills that might allow me to challenge that. Lawyers came into our community when I was a little boy to open up the public schools. That legacy of intervention and transformation was something that was very meaningful to me. So the idea of helping the schools to make those kinds of interventions was very exciting. I ended up in the criminal justice arena just because it was in that space that I saw such desperate need – going to death row and meeting people who were literally dying for legal assistance, was pretty hard to shake. While my classmates were fretting over which city they wanted to live in and which firm they wanted to work with, even which public interest provider they wanted to work with, the idea that there was this community of condemned people who had no access to legal assistance was just so compelling to me that it was such a simple choice to do this work. And then once you get close to it, it’s very hard to do anything else. So that’s what got me on this path.
What compelled you to start Equal Justice Initiative? Did you see a gap in the landscape, so to speak?
Yeah. Alabama does not have a public defender system; there were no institutional services for condemned prisoners. In 1989, 25 percent of the executions in the U.S. took place in Alabama. So there was this glaring need that I felt had to be met. And I was hoping to create an institution and have someone else run it, and go back to Atlanta and continue my work with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee. But the challenges for creating an institution that could be effective in an environment like this were so great, that I really ended up having to stay on. It was really all about the client. When someone is facing execution, it really sharpens your perception of what’s important – what’s a priority and what’s not. For me it was necessary to create an institution that could be effective in the courts; that could articulate and define the problems that were shaping these issues outside the courts, and that had the kind of credibility, and strength of persuasion, that could make a difference in the lives of these men and women.
In trying to do that, did you meet any resistance – that I imagine would be subtle and of a red-tape nature? And do you get targeted personally at all? Do you get phone calls in the middle of the night or have things changed in that regard?
We met pretty strong resistance. We could not get any funding. We could not get any local support. Some of the cases were provocative to people in these local communities. So yeah, we used to get bomb threats and would have to flee the office because a serious threat had been made. I’ve certainly got those middle-of-the-night calls making very menacing threats. Particularly in the early days – the first five or ten years of our existence – there was constantly those kinds of obstacles, including a real confusion about why we were doing what we were doing. But yeah, that was very much a part of our history.
How does race relate to incarceration rates?
Well I think there is a legacy connected to our history of racial inequality that begins with slavery. And I think what’s unique about the American experience with slavery is that we were unlike lots of other countries where there had been slavery. In most countries slavery was a temporary, transitional status that was not controlled by race or ethnicity. It was usually shaped by misfortune. But in the United States we had a system of slavery that was centrally tied; a hereditary status, back to race. Because of that, we weren’t a society with slaves, we became a slave society. We actually created a narrative of racial difference, and a myth of white supremacy to legitimate slavery. We never addressed how that ideology of white supremacy corrupted our thinking about everything. So when slavery, when involuntary servitude and forced labor is ended, at the end of the Civil War, we think that we’ve ended slavery. But I don’t really think slavery ended in 1865. I think it just evolved and turned into decades of racial subordination. Terrorism and violence and lynching were tools to maintain this racial hierarchy that were deeply disruptive to the aspirations and opportunities for people of color. People were denied the right to vote, they were denied education, they were denied fair wages and employment opportunities. They were shielded from the major economic shifts of the 20th century that created a middle class among white people.
That legacy of terror created the crime demographic-geography that we now see: 90 percent of the black population lived in the South at the beginning of the 20th century; over the course of 30 or 40 years, millions fled to Cleveland, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Oakland and Boston. Not as immigrants looking for new opportunities, but as refugees from terror. Exiles from racial terrorism and violence. Unfortunately, the needs of those refugee communities, those exile communities, were never addressed.
Now all the time we’re doing this, we’re actually codifying, into the law, this racial hierarchy – which is what segregation was. It was an effort to legalize, if you will normalize, this ideology of white supremacy. The courts tolerated it; it undermined their credibility and integrity. And even when we confronted this in the 50s and 60s during the Civil Rights movement, and got those laws corrected, that narrative of racial difference persisted. So I believe black and brown people are born with a presumption of guilt and dangerousness that was crafted and developed during the era of slavery, that was reinforced during terrorism, that was codified during the era of segregation, and is now manifest in this period of mass incarceration and excessive punishment. You see the targeting now with the war on drugs of communities of color.
You see the selective enforcement of these low-level non-violent crimes against people of color. You see the indifference of the system of justice to the plight of the innocent, to the abuse of people of color. And all of that is a function of this history that has made us tolerant and comfortable with the situation. You see our men dying in the streets from police shootings because there is presumption that these men are so dangerous that you shoot first and ask questions later. That you can get away, literally with murder. And so that consciousness is, in my judgment, a consequence of our silence, a failure for decades, for centuries to confront this ideology of white supremacy.
One of the issues you deal with – and that I’m not certain many Americans are aware of – is that of the incarceration of children, including in adult prisons. What is the extent of this terrible human rights abuse?
Yeah, we had some I criminologists in the 1980s that began demonizing a generation of children, calling them super predators, that resulted in the laws of this country shifting in some pretty radical ways. A lot of states eliminated the minimum age for trying a child as an adult. We subject the children to these mandatory prison sentences, the same as adults, and put them in adult jails and prisons. And now there are 250,000 people in jails and prisons serving long prison sentences for crimes they were accused of when they were children. On any given day we have some 10,000 children – 13, 14, 15, 16, 17-year-old kids – who get placed in adult jails and prisons where they’re at great risk of sexual violence and abuse. We’ve got 15 states with no minimum age for trying a child as an adult, which means that 9 and 10 and 11-year-old kids are sometimes facing adult convictions and sentences. And all of that is a function of a narrative about some children not really being children.
I think it has created a horrific problem. We’ve had some 3,000 kids condemned to die in prison through sentences of life imprisonment without parole – some as young as 13 years of age. And there are huge racial disparities in this arena that contribute to the horror of what I consider to be a very significant human rights problem in the U.S.
Isn’t there anything in federal law, anything in the Constitution or Bill of Rights that someone like yourself can go to and use to fight what’s going on at the state level?
Well we have had some success challenging life without parole sentences by invoking the 8th Amendment which bans cruel and unusual punishment. There aren’t provisions in our Constitution that specifically protect children. We have succeeded in arguing, in a couple of cases where there have been extreme sentences imposed on children. But the judge has no discretion to consider child status unconstitutional, so we’ve had that opportunity and we’re hoping to do more of that, it’s just that there’s a lot more work that still has to be done.
Poverty, race issues… These are huge problems that have been around a long time, to the point that they’re institutional issues. What’s the first step in really changing these things? What’s the best hope for changing things institutionally and changing the mindset of the population?
Well I think you have to get closer to these problems. I don’t think we actually understand what the true problems are. We have a narrative about what the problems are that tend to be created from a distance and we miss some of the real particulars and the details, I think. You understand from an approximate perspective what the problems are. I’ve spent time in jails and prisons with children, I know there should be a total ban on putting children in adult jails; I know that we should have a minimum age for a child to be tried as an adult, much higher than it is in this state. I know that we should always be required to consider A child’s status before imposing a sentence on them. But that’s because I’ve seen how the absence of those policies creates true cruelty and abuse. So if more people saw what I see on a regular basis, I think they would want the same things I want. And that’s true individually but also collectively.
So I want people to get closer to people who have been formally incarcerated, people who are currently incarcerated, the families of the incarcerated, and become acquainted with the challenges of reentry and the challenges of mass incarceration. That’s what motivates them to do the things that are necessary to create different policies and system change and reform. It’s that knowledge, that understanding that makes it so discomforting to continue on as if everything is okay, that you begin to advocate, you begin to fight, and you begin to say things that have to be said. I also think it’s important that we should be hopeful about what can be done. I say to people all the time that justice prevails where hopelessness persists. Our lack of belief that we can do something, that we can change something, is what sustains the status quo. It’s what So I want people to get closer to people who have been formally incarcerated, people who are currently incarcerated, the families of the incarcerated, and become acquainted with the challenges of reentry and the challenges of mass incarceration.
That’s what motivates them to do the things that are necessary to create different policies and system change and reform. It’s that knowledge, that understanding that makes it so discomforting to continue on as if everything is okay, that you begin to advocate, you begin to fight, and you begin to say things that have to be said. I also think it’s important that we should be hopeful about what can be done. I say to people all the time that justice prevails where hopelessness persists. Our lack of belief that we can do something, that we can change something, is what sustains the status quo. It’s what allows inequality and injustice to prevail and continue over a long period of time. If you have some vision, if you have some courage, if you have some hope amongst people who I think want to be decent and just but don’t push themselves to advocate for change, I believe they’ll take action.
So, at the coalface, are you optimistic that there will be significant change in your lifetime?
I am. But only because I believe that we will keep fighting, we’re going to continue doing what we can, and if others will do the same, I absolutely believe that there can be change. I don’t think it’s inevitable. I don’t think it’s certain. I can’t even control when and where it happens. But I can say we will fight, we will stand, we will speak, and we will push. If others do the same, I have lots of historical evidence to suggest that things can change. I’m the great- grandson of people who were enslaved, and they overcame slavery. My grandmother overcame lynching and terrorism, my parents overcame segregation. I have to believe that Iand my generation can overcome mass incarceration and excessive punishment.
For young activists of color, starting out, working at the community level on whatever issue, whatever area, would there be something from your experience that you would want to pass on to them that would perhaps make their path a little easier?
I was taught you have to keep your eyes on the prize and hold on, and I think that’s what I would say to young activists as well. You have to be tactical, you have to be strategic. You have to understand that you have to go where people are and move them to where they need to be on these kind of issues. If you just take up a position and say, “This is the position that I think we should all be at,” and demand that they come to you. There are times when it may be effective but most of the time that’s not going to be effective. It may be self-affirming, it may make you feel good but it’s not going to be effective.
I think, more than anything, you’ve got to want change. Not the process, the talked-about change, not the rhetoric, not even the spectacle; we want change and I believe we have a generation of young leaders who appreciate that, who are prepared to take their education and their skills and their energy to mobilize and implement the kind of reforms that are desperately needed. At the end of the day, we want to be able to say: “This is what changed as a result of our intervention. This is what happened.” That now reduces, in some small way, the threat posed by this legacy. I do think, that so much talent, so much energy, so much excitement, for me at least, what I’m seeing among the new community of young activists, I’m hoping this be sustained and manifest in ways that really create transformation.