Just Mercy, a Story of Justice and Redemption
by Bryan Stevenson (New York: Random House, 2015) 349 pp + xiv, paper $17.00
Shortly after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1985, Bryan Stevenson was a young black attorney who found himself quickly thrust into an American South justice system riddled with injustice. Believing that “the true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned” (p. 18), he soon established a law firm called Equal Justice Initiatives to defend such marginalized people and correct the system where he could. This book is about “getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America” (p. 14), and attempting to do something about it.
Stevenson creatively weaves his ideology through stories of people that he has defended, in particular Walter McMillian whom was wrongly accused of murder and sentenced to be executed. Through such accounts, Stevenson reveals the corrupt underbelly of America’s criminal system, a system which he has devoted his adult life to changing— with considerable success. With compassion and heart he puts a face on the many poor blacks and whites in America who are living in fear of a justice system stacked against them. The author calls for a “just mercy,” which belongs to the underserved (p. 294).
Concerning racism, Stevenson believes there are four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach:
- The reign of terror, from the collapse of Reconstruction to World War II
- Jim Crow laws
- Mass incarceration
There is much insight that can be gleaned from Just Mercy. The author has placed his finger on a number of society’s evils, offers valuable correctives, and has sought to chart a better course. The book is well worth reading especially for those in need of listening more attentively to the heart-cry of those who are hurting in our culture. However, while the emphasis of Just Mercy is on the criminal system, it does not address the deeper issues that have engulfed so many in a life of crime, such as broken homes, physical violence, poverty, and substance abuse. Of course, as an attorney, this is not Stevenson’s lane; nevertheless, while creating a more just criminal system for all members of society is extremely commendable, it does not solve the systemic sin issues mentioned above. For that we need the gospel, which does not seem to be on Stevenson’s radar.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel.