Bryan Stevenson - The Full Interview
By Will Guess
Photo courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative
For the majority of his life, Bryan Stevenson has fought against racial inequalities and injustices in the court system. A graduate of Harvard Law School and a professor at New York University, he started the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which serves to defend people who have been treated unfairly and unjustly. He is a strong proponent of the anti-death penalty movement and one hell of an orator, receiving the biggest response ever at a TED talk. Stevenson is this year’s Houston Peace & Justice Center’s 2023 National Peacemaker Award recipient, an honor previously given to Helen Thomas, a former member of the White House Press Corps, and Jim Hightower, a syndicated columnist and political activist. He will be in town to accept the award on November 10 at the Czech Center Museum, adding to his already stacked list of achievements. Stevenson was gracious enough to talk to FPH and share his thoughts about growing up with racism, his organization and the death penalty.
What was your first encounter with racism?
Well, I grew up in a poor rural community and so as a small child we were dealing with the last vestiges of Jim Crow. I didn’t go to the public school. I started my education at a local movie theater that was still racially segregated. The teachers were racially segregated. I think that it wasn’t clear to me just how structured things were until there was integration at the schools, and that’s when we encountered all of the growing pains that many of these communities went through when the Supreme Court’s rulings that banned racially segregated education took effect. And there was always evidence of racial hierarchy and racial subordination; I just kind of grew up with that. Things got better over time in terms of the more dramatic aspects of racial inequality. It was very much a part of my early childhood.
Is that one reason why you do what you do?
I think that I have never completely recovered from that legacy, mostly because I don’t think we’ve actually addressed it the way we need to address it. I’m persuaded that many people of color were traumatized and really injured by the decades of humiliation and exclusion and marginalization that they experienced during the Jim Crow era. I think that that has created continuing distrust, tension, uncertainty, and anxiety that we have not overcome because we really haven’t committed ourselves to a process of being truthful about what that legacy represents. So, I do think it’s a part of why I do what I do.
Do you think that schools are becoming segregated again due to class disparities and income levels?
Oh yeah, I don’t think there’s any question that we haven’t achieved the kind of diverse, integrated world that many people had imagined in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I think that school funding, residential segregation, anxiety around culture, class, and race has contributed to education experiences, but there’s still much more racially segregated than people had hoped.
Why did you start the Equal Justice Initiative?
While I was very interested in race and poverty generally when I went to law school, it was really in the criminal justice system that I saw tremendous challenges and tremendous needs. I first met someone on death row when I was a law student and it was really hard for me to accept that there were people in this country who were literally dying for legal assistance - people who couldn’t get the legal help they needed and were going to be executed as a result of that. So I started working in the criminal justice area and on death penalty cases and excessive punishment cases right out of law school. A few years into that it just became clear that Alabama was a place where there were critical unmet needs and I decided to start a project there. There was no public defender system; there were huge problems with reliability of these convictions and sentences. It just felt like there was a need to have some institutional response and I started the project and it has been going ever since.
What are your thoughts on privatized prisons?
Well, I think that, generally, mass incarceration has been horrific for the United States and has created all of these collateral consequences that are regrettable and are in desperate need of attention and reform. One of the collateral consequences is creating an economic incentive for some private prison and private corrections types to profit on high levels of incarceration - mass incarceration and mass imprisonment. So I think it’s a really terrible consequence of 40 years of over-incarceration that we now actually have economic models that depend on putting as many people in prison as possible for economic success. I think that is a horrific development that incentivizes over- incarceration, excessive punishment, and ultimately, abuse because the other dynamic that I see with private prisons is that they don’t have any real incentive to rehabilitate, to correct, to support, to facilitate humane, healthy, appropriate treatment of the incarcerated because again, their goal is to have as many people in prison as possible and their economic model does best when nobody ever gets out. That’s a really terrible development.
Do you think a society should be judged based on how it treats the lower class?
I think it does and certainly a commitment to the rule of law and the character of our commitment to justice has to be measured in that arena. I don’t think you can look at how we treat powerful, privileged, protected people and have any real understanding of our commitment to law. I think when we judge ourselves that way we have a lot of work to do.
One of your main goals is to get the death penalty abolished in Alabama. How close do you think you are to making that a reality?
My goal really is to end the death penalty everywhere, not just in Alabama. There are some encouraging signs. We’ve had five states in the last five years abolish the death penalty and no states had abolished the death penalty for almost 40 years prior to that. So, that’s an encouraging trend. I’ve been involved in some work in California where there’s going to be a referendum this November where we have a real shot at ending the death penalty there, which would be huge. That would reduce the death row population in this country by about 20 percent. All of these developments have me encouraged. Places like Alabama and Texas are probably going to be the last bastions of capital punishment but if there’s success anywhere on this issue, I interpret that as success everywhere.
Do you think serving the rest of your life in prison is more of a torture than dying?
For some clients, it is harder for them to confront a sentence of life in prison without parole than the death penalty. There are other people who recognize that where there’s life, there’s hope and see in any sentence that’s less than execution the possibility for change, recovery, and rehabilitation. I think it depends on the client and the situation. I do believe that when we execute somebody we are doing something. It’s not just a person who is executed that is implicated by that punishment but the whole society is, and because I think that that is a fundamental violation of basic human rights and human dignity that should never be permitted. There are lots of people who have been really damaged by illness, neglect, and a whole range of things. We have to find ways to provide for humane and appropriate care and management of those folks. But generally, I think we need punishment that is more hopeful than the punishment we have.
Why not execute someone who has proven they don’t have regard for human life? What’s wrong with the death penalty?
First of all, the question of the death penalty really isn’t, in my mind, about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed. There have been some really tragic and awful crimes that people have committed that we have seen. I think the question about the death penalty is do we deserve to kill. Do we have a system of justice that is fair and reliable, that is not affected by racial bias, discrimination against the poor, or politics? I don’t believe we have that kind of system and because of that, I don’t think we can presume to do something like execute someone when we will not have the power to correct the mistake. For every nine people that we’ve executed in this country, we’ve identified one innocent person. That should cause us to stop immediately with executions and it’s not because everybody is innocent because they’re not. It’s about our commitment to a system that is reliable and accurate which we can’t have with the current issues that we’re dealing with. I think that’s number one. Number two, even when people have committed very severe crimes and there’s no question about their guilt, we have to think differently about what we do in response. We don’t rape people who are guilty of rape, we don’t assault people who have been convicted of assault, and we don’t torture people who have been convicted of torture. We don’t do these things because it would undermine our integrity and our dignity to engage in those kinds of acts. In the state of Texas, to pay someone to go rape people in prison would be obscene. Yet, we kill people who kill. I think the same logic that causes us to say no when it comes to raping rapists or abusing abusers ought to cause us to not kill those who have killed. Because we can do it at night in what appears to be this sterile way doesn’t justify what we’re doing. It’s still taking another human life. And finally, I actually have met hundreds of people who have been sentenced to death and there are a lot about whom I can say this person may never be released and should never be released. I’ve never met anybody who I can say is beyond hope, redemption, recovery, or progress - even in people who have committed some pretty terrible crimes.
What do you think about people who say that race isn’t a problem when it comes to incarceration?
The analysis and the data don’t bear that out. We are finding just incredible disparities that are really not explained by anything other than race consciousness. I’ve been doing a lot of work with children who have been sentenced to life in prison without parole. About 75 percent of the children under the age of 14 that have been sentenced to life without parole are black or brown children. It’s not because they are committing 75 percent of the crimes. There are thousands of majority children, white children, who are engaging in these same kinds of acts who are not receiving these sentences. I think that our system has too few decision makers of color. In my state of Alabama, all of the appellate court judges are white and all but one of the prosecutors are white. We have a horrific problem with excluding African-Americans from serving on juries. The absence of perspectives of colors on these juries contributes to a distance with minority defendants that often times gives them much worse outcomes. The policies themselves are sometimes bias - they reveal race consciousness. And the way we overly punish some kinds of drugs crimes but under punish some kinds of DUI crimes - it’s reflective of that. You don’t have to look really hard to see tremendous evidence of racial disparity and racial bias in the criminal justice system.
Has there been any particular case that you’ve worked on that was difficult for you personally?
They all present different kinds of challenges. The cases that are the hardest for me are the cases where we say no, where we can’t take on a case or we can’t take on a client because we don’t have the resources or we don’t have the capacity. Even when the cases don’t go well, if we’re fighting, there’s something therapeutic, comforting, and helpful about that dynamic which makes what you’re fighting about a little easier. Sadly, there are more and more cases that we just can’t get to.
You’ve received a laundry list of awards for your work. Which one are you most proud of?
It’s hard to say. When I was younger, I received the MacArthur Award and that was one of the most useful awards because it came with money and it was at a time when we had lost a lot of funding. I suppose that was one of the most significant in that it allowed me to sustain the work of EJI when I wasn’t sure how we were going to do that. It also connected me with some amazing people who have become friends and colleagues throughout my career. I really did value that, but each award is really meaningful and affirming in its own way. We get a lot of hostility and resistance, and we get a lot of people telling us we shouldn’t be doing what we do - that it’s bad, not good, or not useful. Anytime someone takes the time to say that they think what you’re doing is valuable is important and affirming. It’s really meaningful.
For more information on the Houston Peace & Justice Center, visit hpjc.org
For more information on Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, visit eji.org
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