Hello and welcome to the 3rd week of our book discussion of Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. The coverage for this week is for chapters 12 through 16 and the epilogue. As Kym and Bonny have both explained, please join the discussion by leaving a comment here on the blog. I’ll be responding to your comments directly IN the comments, so please do check back once in a while to see how the discussion is going. Please feel free to respond to other commenters as well. We realize that this is not the most ideal discussion format and that it’s somewhat cumbersome and a little awkward but it’s the most reasonable way we could think of for our beta test and it has worked out okay the last two weeks.
So. Welcome! Let’s pretend that it’s Friday night and you’re all gathered in my living room enjoying Friday Night Snacks as we begin to discuss . . .
The book focuses primarily on the case of Walter McMillian but there are other cases presented as well, most dealing with women and juveniles. Which of those other cases were memorable for you and why? What emotions did they bring up for you? Were there any moments of satisfaction?
The title of Chapter 15 is Broken and Stevenson writes quite a bit about how we are all broken by something. The things that break us and hurt us may be different but our shared brokenness connects us. He further theorizes that hiding the most broken among us by locking them away in prison only serves to reinforce the cycle and that perhaps instead we should acknowledge our brokenness: if we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears . . . maybe we would look harder for solutions to caring for the disabled, the abused, the neglected, and the traumatized. I had a notion that if we acknowledged our brokenness we could no longer take pride in mass incarceration, in executing people, in our deliberate indifference to the most vulnerable. If you’re comfortable, share the ways that you or those around you are broken and discuss how being vulnerable about the things that have hurt us can make the world better for everyone.
This final question is my big bold question, the one that might make some people really uncomfortable but I’m going to put it out there anyway. Stevenson concludes that there are four periods in American history that have shaped our approach to race relations and justice: slavery, the period following the collapse of Reconstruction until World War II, Jim Crow, and now mass incarceration which shows us statistically that while people of color make up 30% of the population of our country, they account for 60% of those imprisoned. What do you think about the statement that mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow? Can you think of ways that we can work against this and bring about change?
I was really struck by the cases of the children, particularly the boy (whose name escapes me now) who shot his abusive stepfather. I was also appalled to learn about the harsh sentences that are still legal to impose on minors in my home state. Science has shown that the brain, and specifically the part of the brain that controls executive function and decision making, isn’t fully developed until one’s early 20s. To me, this means that we cannot treat children like adults and we can’t hold them responsible for making poor decisions the same way we do adults.
As for your bold statement, I’d say Stevenson is making a very strong argument, but I’d say it doesn’t go far enough. While mass incarceration of people of color is a huge issue and one that needs to be addressed, I’d say the bigger issue is that of systemic white supremacy. It’s at the heart of the problem and of so many others, so while we can try to fix the issues within the criminal justice system, I don’t think we can completely fix them unless we also address the underlying structure that allows the inequalities to exist. How do we do that? I’m not sure, but I know it’s going to take a lot of us working together and admitting to some hard truths, particularly those of us who benefit from the system.
Replying to Sarah:
I agree, it was the children’s stories that really bothered me, too. The story of Joe, the young man in the wheelchair who got stuck in the holding cage, was just awful. I like the Stevenson points out that many of those juveniles matured into adults who were confused about their behavior and why they had done what they had and that’s a distinction not often seen with adult prisoners.
I love you for saying we need to go even further than dealing with mass incarceration and we need to deal with white supremacy and recognize that it’s the heart of the problem.
Like Sarah, I was most profoundly struck by the cases involving children. I was horrified that children are placed in facilities with adults. Likewise, I was struck by the ease at which we incarcerate those with mental deficiencies. And, finally – the case of the prisoner who had been a victim of the foster care system. I mean from putting their belongs in a trash bag (this is a common practice in all states) to horrific treatment in what should be safe places – these kids have no hope in life.
And, for your bold statement… I say AMEN! Anyone who thinks that we are an equal society need look no further than those statistics. We have just replaced Jim Crow with incarceration. And, we (whites) think we are not racist, not bigoted, and are entirely fair – after all, these are criminals. (and I truly hope my sarcasm comes through clearly!) It would be an eye-opening thing for whites to experience just a bit of what BiPOC experience on a daily basis. Just a bit, because I don’t believe we could take more than that.
This book opened my eyes to so many things.
Replying to Kat:
I agree with you on all your points. White people think that they aren’t racist because they aren’t running around in KKK hoods and lynching black people but the reality is racism is much more systemic than those extremes. Have we stopped doing that stuff? I suppose we have. But have we stopped being racist? Have we dismantled white supremacy? Absolutely not.
I was particularly struck by the children’s cases and those of the mentally ill. Charlie, the 14-year-old that shot his mother’s drunken boyfriend after he beat her into unconsciousness, and was charged with murder, and Trina Garnett, a mentally ill woman who had served 38 years in prison in PA are two examples of people that are unable to make reasoned decisions and speak for themselves. That does not mean they should be excused for their actions, but intervention and mental health treatment could go a long way towards mitigating the injustice of lifelong incarceration without parole.
In answer to your third question, I think Sarah has made an excellent point that I don’t think I can improve upon. Incarceration may sound like a solution, but we have to admit the problems with it — prejudice, bias, fear, and different standards for people of color. I think that mass incarceration is one symptom of systemic white supremacy. It is very difficult to change, especially with an overtly racist, intolerant, prejudiced president promoting these views, but it took us generations to get to this point and will take generations of working together to improve. We can (and must) all learn to be better and do better, bit by bit.
In reply to Bonny:
Our treatment of the mentally ill is deplorable and when we don’t know what to do with people with those problems we all too readily lock them away. They do not belong in prison. You and Sarah are spot on with your thoughts on mass incarceration and the underlying problem of white supremacy. I know recognizing it is part of the solution but I’m wondering what else I can do, particularly in my town where we are sorely lacking in diversity.
I think your question should make us all uncomfortable, change comes with some and often times a lot of discomfort…then, often it is real change. Jim Crow is alive and practiced in the US! Oh, we may not hear about actual ‘lynching’, a tactic used to terrorize Black communities for those who stepped out of the blatent racist social structure designed by white culture. Jim Crow can be seen in voter suppression, red lining, the Judicial System, educational system, and the work place!
I have chosen to call out racism, especially in my small world of knitting and quilting groups. I try to call it out in a respectful manner, not an ‘in your face’ manner, usually by asking a question. I choose not to isolate myself from people with racist views, how else will they ever hear other views. Racist are not born racist, racism is taught! We all have some racist (fear), beliefs regarding different cultures, religions, people who look different than “me”. This is not to be hidden behind though, but examined and worked through, it’s difficult, uncomfortable, and often times painful to look in a mirror.
Replying to Eileen:
It does my heart good to hear that you have chosen to call out racism in a way that raises awareness without alienating people. Those are hard situations to be in and hard conversations to have! I recently had one with my nephew and was just at a loss for words when I tried to explain that racism only applies to people of color and white people just can’t be victims of it.
Great questions, Carole – and I am nodding my head in complete agreement with the answers already provided. I do love that I have the privilege of hanging out with so many smart – and well-spoken! – women!!
Replying to Mary:
Yes, Mary, we are indeed lucky to be surrounded by women who understand, push us to think harder, and challenge us to do something.
I just read this NPR article: https://www.npr.org/2019/11/18/780539163/u-n-expert-faults-u-s-for-inhuman-treatment-and-high-incarceration-of-children
TL; DR: The U.S. has the highest child incarceration rate IN THE WORLD. (Uppercase mine)
Ah darn, I read the book and forgot all about the discussion of it. I was distracted by a few health issues and family issues. I am now following the other blogs so I don’t miss out again.
I found the book very hard to read, the stories were so sad and made me mad at the treatment people received. I learned a lot about the justice system and didn’t realize the way minors were treated. I am glad that there are lawyers like Bryan out there that are doing everything they can to help those that are wrongly incarcerated. It seems like some prosecutors just want to close a case and they don’t care who they put in prison as long as it makes them look good for solving a case.
Replying to Suzanne:
I agree that it was difficult to read but I also think we have to look at the difficult things if we’re going to change them. Like you I’m glad that there are people like Bryan who are so invested in making changes and I think we have to do whatever we can to support them.
I would agree with this author that these four periods that have shaped race relations and the so-called criminal justice system in this country. I wonder if white supremacy and silence in the face of an unjust system are THE common threads that wind through all four of these times. Speaking up, speaking out and making our opinions known to elected officials is one small way to make a difference. At any rate, this is my opinion and I enjoy hearing from everyone.
Replying to Jane:
I do think white supremacy is the common thread and I’m glad that you brought up elected officials. Changing who we put in the seats to make the decisions is one thing we can all do.