It’s Just About Mercy when it Comes to Civil Rights of Incarcerated Individuals

By: Lynn Ellenberger

As a former assistant federal public defender and an attorney representing incarcerated individuals as a part of FeganScott’s civil rights practice, I’ve seen firsthand racism in the criminal justice system.

A compelling example is the book (and now movie) titled “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by acclaimed civil rights attorney and activist Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson founded Equal Justice Initiative, the legal organization under which he pursues his civil rights work. He also founded the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, which pays tribute to the thousands of American victims of lynching.

“Just Mercy” follows the life histories and legal proceedings of several of Stevenson’s clients, most of whom were on death row in the South. The book is not about Black history or white history, but American History. The book is an honest account of events that occur every day in police stations, courtrooms, and prisons throughout the country.

Despite the fact that some individuals and groups want to believe racism ended with slavery, Black Americans continue to be discriminated against in our criminal justice system. According to the NAACP’s criminal justice system fact sheet, “One out of every three Black boys born today can expect to be sentenced to prison, compared to one out of six Latino boys; one out of 17 white boys,” also noting that, “5% of illicit drug users are African American, yet African Americans represent 29% of those arrested and 33% of those incarcerated for drug offenses.”

In “Just Mercy,” Stevenson compellingly narrates the legal predicaments of his clients, in addition to cataloguing his experiences as a Black man living in the United States. A judge once told him that he shouldn’t be sitting at counsel table, presuming he was a criminal defendant because of the color of his skin. In another event, the police approached Stevenson sitting in his car outside of his apartment, where Stevenson was listening to the end of his favorite song on the radio, assuming that there was something sinister about a Black man sitting in a car in his neighborhood.

I’ve seen firsthand how stories like those told in “Just Mercy” play out in real time. Like Stevenson, I represent individuals unjustly incarcerated. I have seen first-hand how prosecutorial offices continue to pursue tough-on-crime stances for individuals who have been incarcerated from a young age and have served many decades in prison, despite evidence of rehabilitation and statistics showing that individuals age out of criminal activity.

Despite Stevenson’s many legal successes, including victories in the United States Supreme Court, there were losses of life and innocence that Stevenson could not prevent: clients were executed and children were abused while housed in juvenile detention centers. In the face of these profound tragedies, Stevenson continued to use his advocacy to show the value of each individual human life, shining a light to show the way for all of us to join in his footsteps.

I have also witnessed tragedies, such as a severely mentally ill client being teased daily by both inmates and guards because of his mental illness. I, too, believe in the importance of recognizing everyone’s individual worth regardless of their criminal status. By recognizing the value of every human being, we can bring both justice and mercy to the criminal justice system.