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Just Mercy by by Bryan Stevenson: a Look at The Us Criminal Defense System Through The Eyes of a Minority

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Knowing the context of any experience is vital in unwrapping it. One has to put him or herself in another person’s situation in order for him or her to understand how the person feels and how the issue at hand affects him or her. This is absent in the majority of criminal defense practices. The lawyers assigned to investigating and defending convicts on death row often do not understand the injustices that the inmates have been subjected to. This frequently leads to inability to go the extra mile in defending their clients. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson shows how Stevenson was able to avoid the pitfalls of being in the majority of the legal profession by letting him experience the lives and the viewpoints of the inmates.

The book strikes me as a revelation to what the criminal defense system is in the eyes of a minority. Minorities are disadvantaged from onset. They are put in difficult positions where there are no options due to the crimes that may or may not have occurred and the color of their skin. The criminal justice system is skewed against minorities. Modern day Jim Crow thrives under mass incarceration and the overall treatment of minorities in the criminal justice system in today’s day and age. The disadvantage of minorities in the criminal justice system resonated with me, as there is such unfair management of their cases from the beginning which often turns into a years long ordeal.

Some clients that Bryan Stevenson represented did not make it through the defense. Some were executed despite the effort that he put into their defense. Mentally ill criminals are often killed while there’s a possibility that they could be rehabilitated and treated for their illness. Two of Bryan Stevenson’s clients were executed due to their minority status and the nature of their crimes. A defense of insanity and incompetence when applied early on may have averted an unfair execution. Criminals who are unaware they are committing a crime are not competent enough to stand trial. The best option for these criminals is being institutionalized in a treatment facility. Rehabilitation is possible when implemented when implemented compassion.

The element of understanding the criminal and showing mercy to the convicts may be unfamiliar to some readers. Unfortunately, detrimental vocabulary describing individuals in the criminal justice system is used interchangeably. Stevenson is able to humanize the individuals and separate the person from the crime and labels. He notes that these people are not different from him in many ways. He acknowledges their background, which may have driven them on a path towards crime. The journey from being the disillusioned Harvard student to the civil rights and criminal defense lawyer is marked with moments of understanding how the system has been skewed against minorities as well as understanding the individuals involved in the cases.

It is important to recognize how different perceptions are in the south and in the north. The south leans towards conservatism while the north is more liberal. While at Harvard, Stevenson realizes that he does not fit in the system. He is among some individuals who are so galvanized against the reality of life in the country that they have developed the view that there is no difference in color. They feel like they are part of an exclusive group. This utopia thinking leads people to believe that there is no modern racial discrimination. Furthermore, it prevents people from getting close. These people do not have any idea of the extent of the modern era racial relations in the United States. This is partly the reason Stevenson feels like he has been exposed to a system where there is no possibility of surviving with the false sense of equality that he gets at Harvard.

After reading about the different viewpoints, I am pushed into thinking about the nature of practice that Stevenson has had. He is exposed to the reality both from his upbringing and professional positions. His classmates will most likely look at the criminal cases they are defending or prosecuting in isolation rather than through an understanding of the context. Therefore, they are less likely to show mercy. This understanding of the people that one is defending is a vital element in the definition of the best intervention and defense for individuals charged with crimes. It is also possible that the color blindness mentality is a major contributor towards the sustained discrimination of minorities in the criminal justice system. The proposition that one has to walk a mile in another person’s shoes is fundamental. It is important to understand the person one is defending. It is also important to understand the context of the crimes as well as the background of the criminal before mounting a defense given that the upbringing is a major determinant of the criminal tendencies in any person. Individuals need to “get close” in order to make a difference. 

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