A Conversation with Justice-Reform Advocate Bryan Stevenson | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation with Justice-Reform Advocate Bryan Stevenson

“If most people saw what I see on a regular basis, they would feel the same way I do about reform.”

Bryan Stevenson is a leading advocate for reforming the criminal-justice system. The Harvard-educated attorney and founder of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative has spent decades defending the poor and wrongly condemned. And as he recounts in his best-selling 2014 book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau), he’s saved innocent men from death row in the Deep South — where, even more than elsewhere, being poor, black and charged with a crime can seem an insurmountable challenge.

Stevenson’s work addresses a wide range of social-justice issues. The author, 56, last spoke in Pittsburgh in the 1990s. Prior to his Jan. 25 talk at Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Monday Night Lectures, he spoke with CP by phone from Montgomery. The event is sold out, but partial-view seats and a waiting list are available. 

click to enlarge A Conversation with Justice-Reform Advocate Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson

How has mass incarceration affected America?

We’re really just a very different country today than we were 40 years ago, when the prison population was 300,000 people — today with a prison population of 2.3 million, and six million people on probation and parole. The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and we don’t seem to be particularly bothered by that. 

Why don’t we talk about it?

I think first of all we’ve had no leadership — that is, our politicians have been preaching fear and anger for decades because it gets them votes. 

But I think we have a hard time talking about it because what we do in the criminal-justice system is not largely transparent. The jails and prisons are remote; there’s no access to them unless you have a loved one inside [or] you work inside. You don’t really know how terrifying and abusive the conditions of confinement can be.

How can that change?

We just have to get people closer to what happens. I’ve always believed that if most people saw what I see on a regular basis, they would feel the same way I do about reform. But because they don’t see what I see on a regular basis, they are resistant if I say, “We should stop putting children in prison until they die. We shouldn’t have the death penalty. We shouldn’t allow police and prosecutors to have this kind of power.” I don’t think my perspective is radical or comes from a set of values or norms that are extreme. I’ve just been getting information that most people don’t get.

You make a financial argument, too.

We spent $6 billion on jails and prisons in 1980; we spent $80 billion last year. That means we’re not spending money on education, we’re not spending money on health and human services, we’re not spending money on infrastructure and public utilities. People need to be talking about these trade-offs.

What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement?

We’ve done a really poor job of confronting our history of racial inequality in this country. I think from the very first day when black people became part of the American experience, we have not valued their victimization. And so I think it’s been great to see young people in particular accept this challenge of giving voice to this. … I’m encouraged when people want to draw attention to acts of [police] violence that may be shaped by racial inequality and racial bias. I think we have to do that.