When Will America Have Equal Justice?

For me, the most moving keynote speaker of the National Charter Schools Conference last month was not a charter leader—not even a traditional educator. He is Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama.

As an African-American lawyer, Stevenson has dedicated his career to helping the poor, incarcerated, and condemned. Under his leadership, the EJI won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults. In his legal work, he had to undergo humiliating strip searches by prison guards to gain access to his clients.

He started with this shocker: 1 of 3 black male babies today are expected to go to jail or prison. Worse yet, 10,000 children today are in adult prisons.

“Zero Tolerance for Violence” simply doesn’t match reality in our correctional system. He suggests four ways to change this troubling reality.

First: Create Proximity to Those Who are Suffering. Stevenson shared the story of his 14-year-old black client, put away for life for murder. The boy watched his mother beaten many times by her boyfriend. When the boy came home from school one day, he saw his mother severely beaten, laying on the kitchen floor. She didn’t respond. The boy went upstairs, got the boyfriend’s gun from the drawer, and shot the boyfriend in the head while he slept. At trial, Stevenson begged the court not to put the boy in adult prison. To no avail. The lawyer checked on the boy after three days in prison. The boy was traumatized, but would not talk. “What happened to you in there?” he asked repeatedly. The lawyer wouldn’t give up. Only after multiple attempts did the boy break down in tears to relay that he had been raped at least ten times by the adult inmates in just three days.

Sometimes we don’t take time to get to know the real story. We don’t get close enough to find out. Stevenson did.

Check out Thursday’s blogpost for Stevenson’s other changes to make our system more just. Or check out his New York Times bestseller, Just Mercy, named by Time Magazine as one of 10 best books of nonfiction for 2014.