Be the Change: Bryan Stevenson’s Call for Criminal Justice Reform

By: Kyleigh Mann, CMC ’18

At Pomona College’s Criminal Justice Symposium, a disturbing juxtaposition resounds through each panel: the United States of America, proclaimed paragon of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, privileges 5% of the world’s population to first-world-quality democracy, and is home to 25% of the world’s prison population. “Ultimately, you judge the character of a society not by the treatment of the wealthy, but rather by the treatment of the poor, incarcerated, and condemned,” says Bryan Stevenson, keynote speaker of the symposium, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and professor at the New York University School of Law. Stevenson proposes shifting the paradigm of what it means to be American: assessing justice by the state of the least advantaged rather than by the condition of the wealthy and powerful.

Stevenson spoke to his humble beginnings as a first-generation college student and his path to becoming a Supreme Court regular, marked by meaningful experiences with people in need of a second chance. Stevenson engaged the audience with anecdotes exposing the humanity of his clients, the most forsaken members of society. From the rewarding occasion of inadvertently instilling empathy in a Confederate flag-toting Alabama prison guard, to the deep sadness of a failed case in which his client struggling with a speech impediment failed to communicate his last words before being sent to the electric chair, Stevenson guides us to the realization that our society is rarely challenged to feel responsible for the outcomes of “the broken.”

“Every problem is sustained by a narrative,” says Stevenson in regard to the knee-jerk capital punishment solution to our fear and anger towards criminals. The broken American criminal justice system is a product of layered problematic narratives: the narrative that alcoholism a sickness whereas drugs are a crime, the narrative that children are “super predators” rather than children when it comes to certain crimes, the narrative of racial difference enforcing feelings of danger and guilt in the trails of segregation. Stevenson draws on his personal experiences as the driving force towards change, for “proximity generates solutions, and power is not proximate.” Stevenson’s close proximity to criminals provided him the knowledge to advise President Obama in the recent task force on 21st-century policing. Politicians, with the hefty responsibility of crafting policy to address problems involving the people with whom they have no contact or of whom they have no understanding, lack proximity. Politicians have done little to provoke positive change in the system. So what does the criminal justice expert prescribe?

Problematic narratives are a product of us, he argues: we conveniently confirm the beliefs least challenging to us. Given the gravity of an American system that outperforms authoritarian regimes in achieving astounding rates of mass incarceration, and that the legacy of slaves and Native Americans has yet to receive the attention that a genocide and period of terrorism deserves, are college students being overly sensitive when they are critical of the way their own community addresses issues subject to problematic paradigms? One of our tools for impact as students is a critical outlook. Is it a sensitivity flaw, or being acutely critical, that produces the nitpicky political correctness that college students have gained a reputation for? Granted, a social justice movement is not an immunity privilege, and any social justice movement standing for a critical outlook invites as much criticism as it espouses, but bringing the issue of normative beliefs into conversations is not to be underestimated. Sustaining the American prison system requires $70 billion per year. How much does it cost to have the conversations Stevenson suggests, to be critical and aware of cultural norms that reinforce injustice? It’s certainly uncomfortable, but, last I checked, it’s free.

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