With startling statistics, heart-rending anecdotes and occasional warm humor, activist attorney Bryan Stevenson pulled a standing ovation from a near-capacity crowd Thursday night as part of The Forum’s guest speaker series.
A practicing attorney and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to helping indigent and marginalized clients in the criminal system, Stevenson described that system as racially and economically biased, unwieldy and costly.
The U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate, he said. The chances of going to jail are high for everyone, but especially so for African Americans. A white male has a one in 23 chance of serving time; a black male’s chances are one in three. Perhaps even more telling, 84 percent of the people who have been executed in the recent past are African American.
Such statistics are the legacy of slavery, Stevenson said, and until Americans can admit the brutality of the past, they can’t move out of it.
In 1973, 300,000 people were in U.S. jails and prisons, he said. Today there are 2.3 million. The growth is not the result of an increase in crime but rather because of overly harsh sentences for drug use and the policy of no-parole sentences for habitual offenders.
“The collateral consequences of mass incarceration have been devastating,” he said.
The U.S. war on drugs has created a class of “untouchables,” Stevenson contends. About half the people in prison are there for simple drug possession. And in some states, a drug conviction renders a person ineligible for public assistance.
In 10 states, a felony conviction means permanent loss of the right to vote; some 34 percent of the black population in Alabama, where EJI is headquartered, is disenfranchised, Stevenson said.
Those who are wrongly convicted or who are serving disproportionately harsh sentences clearly suffer the most, but society also pays a high price – in lost human resources and in dollars and cents, he said. States spend $50,000, $60,000, or $70,000 a year for each person they lock up. California “bankrupt itself” paying for its prisons, Stevenson said.
In response to a question from the audience later, Stevenson said a handful of people and companies make money providing services for jails and prisons and tend to advocate for incarceration. “There is a profit motive that has to be addressed.”
Stevenson urged a four-pronged approach to confronting injustice.
First, he said, is proximity. You have to get up close to a situation and to the people in it if you are going to recognize problems with it. If you are removed from it, you miss things, he said.
Secondly, we have to be able to “recognize the narratives” that shape our society, Stevenson continued. In the 1980s, a narrative was created that some children are “super predators” and should be tried as adults. The U.S. is the only nation that allows a minor to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, according to Stevenson. But if we accept the narrative of super predators, it allows us to be indifferent to their fate, he said.
Some young people, and especially those who are poor and/or marginalized, have become hopeless, he said. To confront injustice, they – and we – have to be hopeful.
Finally, he told the audience, in order to oppose injustice, people must be willing to be uncomfortable.
According to Leah Aronin of The Forum, 145 people attended the lecture that was held at the Prior-Jollek Hall at Antilles School on St. Thomas.