My interview with Bryan Stevenson, Stockton University’s Constitution Day Speaker, for The Argo, Stockton University’s student newspaper.
The full interview is featured here.
The entire paper is featured here in this PDF.
Full interview also featured under this cut:
Before his Constitution Day keynote speech on Wednesday, Sept. 16, Bryan Stevenson was kind enough to share some of his time to answer a few questions from The Argo. Stevenson is a professor, lawyer, author, and the founder and Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He has spent much of his life fighting for racial justice, and for the rights of those within the criminal justice system.
Q: Although a Constitutional Amendment is rare, do you feel one is needed for racial justice to help address some of the problems we are currently experiencing as a country?
A: I don’t think the problem is the absence of a legal infrastructure to create the kind of progress we need to see. I think it’s a commitment to implementing the laws that already exist in the books, so I don’t think we would actually make a big step forward with a Constitutional Amendment. We have inherited a narrative of racial difference that makes us see people through this lens of color, it creates implicit bias, it creates the presumption of dangerousness- we have to get on the other side of that by talking more honestly about how this developed, and how we recover. And I think of that as something that has to happen at the community level, at the state level, at the national level through dialogue, through truth and reconciliation, more than a Constitutional frame. Now, I would like to amend the 13th Amendment and remove the language that still permits slavery for people convicted of crimes. We prohibit slavery except as a punishment for crime, and I think there’s no place in our society we want to imagine slavery in any form is tolerable or Constitutional, and I would love to see that cleaned up
Q: In a class that I take we discuss Race and Islam, and we’ve recently been discussing terrorism. We actually watched a video of you talking about lynching the other day. My Professor went on to ask us if we knew it was the anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, and none of us knew that. And afterwards, we were wondering why is that, why do people not know these dates as terrorism?
A: Well I think we’ve done a really poor job in this country of talking about this history of racial terror and the way in which we have created this legacy of violence and terror to push back against the activism and calls for freedom and equality. And because of that I think we underestimate the work we still have to do to create more racial justice and progress, and part of my project is to really elevate that consciousness- to dramatize that history to educate people about these events. The calendar we produce is really an effort on an almost daily basis to identify ways in which this history and legacy have been created. The reports we’ve done are really designed to help people understand more intimately, more carefully, how this history has shaped us, and I think we have a lot of work to do in that department.
Q: You’ve experienced great success in front of the Supreme Court, when arguing against life in prison without parole for children, Are there any current issues that you would like to go to the court right now and present cases for?
A: We’d like to get the Court to ban the placement of children in adult jails and prisons, where I think they’re at a great risk. I think there should be a minimum age for trying a child as an adult. We have too many states that have no minimum age, and I think that’s something the Court should do. Ultimately I’d like to see the Court strike down the death penalty. I think we are at a point in our nation’s history where we should free ourselves from the burden of pretending that we can kill people to show that killing is wrong. And I’d like to see the Court take a stronger position on enforcing the commitments that were made during the civil rights era- retreating from the voting rights act is, in my judgement, a step in the wrong direction.
Q: The Supreme Court ruled on a controversial death penalty drug recently, even so, do you have hope more states will move towards outlawing the death penalty?
A: I do. I think there’s been progress. We saw this year the state of Nebraska abolished the death penalty, Nebraska’s not perceived to be a progressive state. The number of executions is down dramatically, the number of death sentences is down dramatically. I think we’re getting to the point where the cost of the death penalty is being recognized as far exceeding the benefit of the death penalty. And even in that case involving the drugs, of Richard Glossip, there’s new questions about whether he’s even guilty of the crime. He was scheduled to be executed later today and the court has stayed that execution because of these concerns, and it just speaks to how we have a system of justice that isn’t reliable enough, isn’t certain enough, to be engaged in punishments from which there can be no recovery, from which there can be no doubt- and I think it’s just one more reason we need to abolish the death penalty.
Q: Why is it in cases where the client may be innocent, the court often says that it’s too late in regards to stopping execution?
A: We’ve just developed this procedural response to the challenges that the death penalty creates, it’s almost that we’ve prioritized finality over fairness. I think that’s really unfortunate, because a fair system, a just system, has to do what’s right, not what’s timely. I think they have recognized if they allow claims that are meritorious to be presented, even when it’s less convenient for the court, that a lot of people get relief. And I think that it’s a mistake to put the emphasis on finality over fairness, but I think that’s what the court has done.
Q: If you could choose one thing to advise college students who want to see change in our criminal justice system, what would it be?
A: I think it would be getting close to people, organizations, systems that are trying to make a difference in this area. I think your ability to make a difference will be shaped by experiences you develop for yourself. So volunteer with a reentry organization, volunteer with a criminal defense organization, volunteer with a human rights program. Do prison work, education, ministry, whatever. I think the more closely you can connect to the people who are affected by mass incarceration, the more effective you will be as an advocate in ending mass incarceration
Q: Have any of your clients taught you a life lesson or something in general?
A: Oh I’m constantly learning from my clients. You know what I talk about most is that I really do believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I think that that’s the lesson my clients have taught me most profoundly. I think that if someone tells a lie they aren’t just a liar, if someone steals something they aren’t just a thief, and if you kill someone you’re not just a killer. My clients are more than criminals, all of them, and that lesson has really shaped my thinking about how to create more justice in the world. None of us wants to be defined by our worst act, our worst moment. But if we want the mercy that allows us to recover from that, the compassion that allows us to escape that fate, we have to give mercy and give compassion. And I think that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned.
Q: Of the presidential candidates who have formally or informally discussed issues of criminal justice reform or racial justice, who do you think would do the most and why?
A: Everybody’s expressed a commitment to reducing the prison population, and that’s encouraging, and I’ll applaud all of them for that. I think that we have to do more than talk about it though, and I’m fearful that this political moment, which has come at quite a price, is going to be wasted if we don’t make the kind of commitments that we need to make. I think that in addition to changing some of the federal sentencing excess that has defined the sentencing guidelines, we really need to commit to reorienting the priorities of states. We’ve invested in the drug war and I think we need to step back from it. Instead of funding drug task forces I think we should be funding programs and services to help people coming out of jail, so prison to reentry. I think it’s going to be a challenge in the coming years as we reduce the prison population. I think we need to create an infrastructure that allows states to really think about what works rather than what sounds tough, and there are a lot of programs and policies that work really well to help keep people out of jails and prisons, and we should embrace those. So I’m hoping that beyond the rhetoric, we’ll see some really bold leadership that puts us on the path- I think we can cut the prison population in this country by 50% in the next 80 years, and without in any way threatening public safety, and we can save billions of dollars. And I think we can create an environment where we are a healthier country.
Q: Are there any books you’ve read on racial justice that you’d recommend that were eye openers, or books that you love in general that you feel like should be read by everyone?
A: Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow is terrific. There’s a book Sherrilyn Ifill wrote, On the Courthouse Lawn, that’s terrific. There are books that I think are really good at detailing parts of our history that are not understood. A guy named Robert Whitaker wrote a book called On the Laps of Gods, which is a fantastic book about the Helena, Arkansas massacre. Doug Blackmon’s book Slavery by Another Name is a fantastic book. Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of other Suns is a terrific book on The Great Migration. And then a book that’s not about race, but it’s about human compassion. It’s actually a work of fiction, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, which you would think is not about racial justice at all- but I think there’s actually a beautiful exploration of compassion and mercy that’s relevant if you’re trying to do justice work.
Q: What made you want to enter the law profession, specifically as you’ve dealt with a lot of cases of inmates on death row?
A: You know, I think I’m a product of the Civil Rights movement. I started my education in a community where black kids couldn’t go to the public schools, and so lawyers came into the community to open up those schools. So in many ways I owe my education to people in the legal system who believed strongly that all children should have the same opportunity for education, and I’ve not forgotten that. And I thought that if they created that opportunity for me, then maybe I could create opportunities for others, and I certainly hope that that’s a part of what I can claim that I’ve done when I’m finished.
Q: In the class I mentioned earlier, we also talk about the intersection of race and class. What do you think the impacts of race and class together are?
A: Well I think there’s no question that the legacy of racial exclusion and violence has been that there are economic burdens that have been disproportionately experienced by communities of color. So I don’t think there’s any way you can separate the challenges of poverty and the history of racial exclusion. In many ways, that’s what created generational poverty. There are people obviously that are suffering from economic burdens that are not people of color, and so understanding those structures and the way in which the policies that gave rise to that are important are also related. So I think you absolutely need to be talking about the economic infrastructure that has sustained many of the racial dynamics that we are now trying to deal with.
Q: Why do you believe the statement #blacklivesmatter is so controversial?
A: I think it’s controversial because it speaks to something people have been unwilling to say. The truth is that we have not valued people and their loss and their lives equally. And for me, no-one could say that’s not true. You could say, well we want to say something that’s less pointed and less focused, but the point of it is in our criminal justice system, the race of the victim is the greatest indicator what kind of punishment you are going to get. And in the context of police violence we have tolerated a lot of abuse and a lot of misconduct, and we tolerated it because the people who were the victims of it just didn’t seem to get the respect and care and attention that other people get. And so to affirm that these lives matter, is I think, an incredibly important statement. And we [the Equal Justice Initiative] use that because we believe that it’s important that people be purposeful and conscious of the need to affirm the victimization of people of color, and black people in particular.
Q: Do you think people are starting to understand what the #blacklivesmatter movement is saying?
A: Well I think in some ways it’s the issues behind the movement that are going to be the focus. I think that for a lot of people it’s less important that they understand the slogans or even the statements, and it’s more important that they understand there’s a need to change the culture of policing in this country. It’s important that they understand that we have a criminal justice system in this country that is not being fair to people of color. It’s important that we deal with these disparities, and if that happens, then they can be confused as much as they want to be about some of these other things.
Q: Can you talk about a little bit about the hashtag the Equal Justice Initiative uses, #slaveryevolved, which references that even though the 13th Amendment was enacted, because of our incarceration system we are still facing a lot of problems.
A: Sure, I just think there is a narrative of racial difference and that is the great evil of American slavery, and we never dealt with that when we were debating prohibition. So I think that in many ways slavery didn’t end in 1865, it just evolved. We are still battling against that narrative of racial difference, that ideology of white supremacy is still a challenge in our society, a problem in our society. And until we acknowledge what the true evil of slavery was, and until we confront it, we’re going to see the remnants of that era and the manifestation of that problem into different ways. And so that’s why it’s important to name what the problem is.
Q: Do you find often times that the people you speak with [on death row] are very surprised by your kindness and your warmth?
A: I have to say, I think that’s the power of being proximate. You have experiences with people that really move you, that really shape you. And that’s why I’m such a big advocate of doing work that positions you in these places where you see and hear things you wouldn’t otherwise see and hear until you choose to get close. And yes, I think for me that’s the most affirming part of my work, is that I get to experience in real time what it means to be human, in spaces where people think that the people aren’t fully human. And to contradict that by lived experience, for me, is a very powerful way to exist.