American Forum: Can Our System of Justice Be Trusted?

American Forum: Can Our System of Justice Be Trusted?


>>IT’S ABOUT HISTORY, POLICY, AND IMPACT. A NEW PERSPECTIVE ON CURRENT AFFAIRS, BRINGING EXPERIENCE, INSIGHT, CIVILITY AND SCHOLARSHIP TO THE URGENT ISSUES OF TODAY. IT’S ABOUT OUR PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE. YOUR HOST: PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST DOUG BLACKMON. FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA’S MILLER CENTER, THIS IS “AMERICAN FORUM.” DOUGLAS BLACKMON: WELCOME BACK TO “AMERICAN FORUM.” WE LIVE IN A COUNTRY THAT IMPRISONS MORE CITIZENS THAN ANY IN THE WORLD. PROBABLY MORE THAN ANY SOCIETY IN HUMAN HISTORY. MORE THAN THE OLD SOVIET RUSSIA AND ITS GULAGS A GENERATION AGO. MORE THAN COMMUNIST CHINA. ALMOST CERTAINLY MORE THAN ALL THE MOST REPRESSIVE REGIMES AROUND THE WORLD FROM THE DARK AGES TO THE PRESENT. APPROXIMATELY SEVEN MILLION AMERICAN CITIZENS LIVE UNDER THE CONTROL OF THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM. MORE THAN TWO MILLION IN PRISON AND ALMOST FIVE MILLION ON PAROLE OR PROBATION. 3000 AMERICANS AWAIT EXECUTION IN THE 31 STATES WHERE IT REMAINS LEGAL. 160,000 PEOPLE ARE SERVING LIFE SENTENCES. ALMOST 50,000 OF THOSE WITH NO CHANCE OF PAROLE. IN RECENT YEARS, WE HAVE ALSO BECOME ACUTELY AWARE THAT OUR SYSTEM IS NOT JUST DRACONIAN, BUT FREQUENTLY MAKES TERRIBLE MISTAKES. INNOCENT CITIZENS HAVE BEEN PUT TO DEATH. MORE THAN 330 FALSELY CONVICTED AMERICANS HAVE BEEN FREED FROM DEATH ROW ON THE BASIS OF NEW DNA TECHNOLOGY. DISPARATE RATES AND LINKS OF INCARCERATION OF AFRICAN AMERICAN MEN, CHILDREN OFTEN SENTENCED TO LIFE IN PRISON, AND THE APPEALS PROCESS MOST AMERICANS WOULD BELIEVE WOULD ALWAYS REMEDY ANY ERRORS HAS PROVEN TO BE UNRELIABLE AND DEEPLY RESISTANT TO CHANGE. THERE IS A TRUE CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE IN AMERICAN JUSTICE. IN THIS EPISODE, WE RETURN TO OUR ONGOING SERIES “WHAT NOW? NEW DIALOGUES ON RACE IN AMERICA.” JOINING US AGAIN IS BRYAN STEVENSON, A LAWYER, FOUNDER OF THE EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE, THE ARCHITECT OF A LANDMARK SUPREME COURT RULING THAT MANDATORY LIFE SENTENCES FOR JUVENILES ARE UNCONSTITUTIONAL AND AUTHOR OF THE BEST-SELLING BOOK “JUST MERCY: A STORY OF JUSTICE AND REDEMPTION.” THANKS FOR BEING HERE. STEVENSON: DELIGHTED TO BE WITH YOU. BLACKMON: SO, BRYAN, SOME OF THOSE NUMBERS THAT I JUST RATTLED OFF, THEY’RE A VERY DEPRESSING SET OF STATISTICS. IT’S A DEPRESSING REFLECTION OF AMERICAN LIFE. THERE’S ALSO A NUMBER OUT THERE RELATIVELY RECENTLY THAT CAME OUT OF THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT, THAT THE HIGH PROBABILITY THAT ONE OUT OF EVERY THREE BLACK MALE BABIES TODAY IS LIKELY TO END UP GOING TO JAIL OR INTO THE PRISON SYSTEM. IS THERE A WAY FOR THAT TO CHANGE? STEVENSON: WELL, THERE ABSOLUTELY IS, I MEAN I THINK THE ONLY ENCOURAGING THING TO THESE REALLY DREADFUL STATISTICS, AND THEY ARE HORRIFIC, ALL THE STATISTICS YOU MENTIONED, ALSO THE PERCENTAGE OF WOMEN GOING TO PRISON HAS INCREASED 640% IN THE LAST 20 YEARS. 70% OF THESE WOMEN ARE SINGLE PARENTS WITH MINOR CHILDREN, THAT’S A VERY SCARY STATISTIC. BUT HALF OF THE PEOPLE WE HAVE IN PRISONS SUFFER FROM MENTAL ILLNESS. THE ONLY ENCOURAGING THIS IS THAT THIS IS A RELATIVELY RECENT PHENOMENON. THE AMERICAN PRISON POPULATION WAS LARGELY STABLE THROUGHOUT MOST OF THE 20TH CENTURY HOVERED AROUND 200,000. THIS BEGAN IN THE 1970S WHEN POLITICIANS BEGAN USING CRIME AND CRIME POLICY AS A WAY TO PROVE THEIR TOUGHNESS, TO PROVE THEIR ANGER. AND I THINK THIS ERA, THE POLITICS OF FEAR AND ANGER WAS USHERED IN WHEN RICHARD NIXON DECIDED TO START A WAR ON DRUGS. WE MADE A POLICY CHOICE, WE SAY DRUGS AND DRUG DEPENDENCY AREN’T HEALTH ISSUES, THEY’RE CRIME ISSUES. AND THAT POLICY WAS ROOTED IN THIS FEAR. I MEAN WE COULD OF SAID DRUG ADDICTION AND DRUG DEPENDENCY IS LIKE ALCOHOLISM. IF YOU KNOW SOMEONE WHO IS AN ALCOHOLIC AND YOU SEE THEM WALK INTO A BAR YOU DON’T THINK OH LET ME CALL THE POLICE, YOU THINK THAT’S SOMEONE WHO NEEDS HELP. AND WE COULD OF DONE THAT, AND WE STILL CAN, AND IF WE DO THAT WE BEGAN TO BEGIN TO THINK ABOUT THESE ISSUES OF DRUG ADDICTION AND DRUG DEPENDENCY AS HEALTH ISSUES WE’LL BEGIN TO SEE THE PRISON POPULATION DECLINE, WE’LL SEE SOME OF THESE REALLY SCARY TRENDS REVERSE. I THINK IF WE GET SOBER ABOUT THE AMOUNT OF MONEY WERE SPENDING WE’LL BEGIN TO LOOK FOR LESS COSTLY, MORE EFFECTIVE SOLUTIONS. BUT IT WON’T CHANGE UNTIL WE CHANGE THE POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT THAT BRED THESE PROBLEMS. AND THE KIND OF TRICKY THING ABOUT UGLY POLITICS IS THAT THEY CAN CHANGE, AND THAT’S THE UP SIDE. THE DOWN SIDE IS THAT IT IS VERY HARD TO CHANGE WITHOUT LEADERSHIP, AND WE HAVEN’T SEEN AS MUCH OF THAT OVER THE LAST 40 YEARS THAT WE NEEDED TO SEE. AND THAT’S THE WORRISOME PART. BLACKMON: IN THE ’70S AND THEN THE ’80S, THERE WAS THIS DRAMATIC SURGE IN, UH, IN CRIME RATES AND IN VIOLENT CRIMES, AND THE, AND IN PARTICULAR AFRICAN AMERICANS SUFFERED FROM THE, UH, BECAUSE AFRICAN AMERICANS ARE DISPROPORTIONATELY THE VICTIMS OF CRIME, UH, AND SO YOU HAD A, A REAL SENSE OF EXISTENTIAL CRISIS IN THE COUNTRY AROUND CRIME. STEVENSON: WELL, I THINK IT HAS TO DO WITH THE NARRATIVE THAT WE CREATE, SO YOU KNOW, THESE POLITICIANS THAT ARE COMPETING WITH EACH OTHER ON WHO CAN BE THE TOUGHEST ON CRIME, AND WHAT THAT MAKES YOU, UH, KIND OF RELY ON ARE THESE NARRATIVES OF FEAR AND ANGER, AND IF YOU’RE AFRAID OR IF YOU’RE ANGRY YOU STOP PAYING ATTENTION TO SIGNS. YOU STOP PAYING ATTENTION TO RATIONAL EVIDENCE. YOU BECOME, IN SOME WAYS, INDIFFERENT TO WHAT THE BOOKS SAY. YOU JUST KNOW THAT THAT PERSON DID SOMETHING WRONG AND YOU WANT TO CRUSH THEM. AND THAT REALLY BECAME A PART OF OUR CULTURE, AND THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM IN THE 70S AND 80S. WE GAVE UP OUR REHABILITATION, WE TOOK BOOKS AND EDUCATION AND DRUG TREATMENT OUT OF THE PRISONS, WE MADE THE WAREHOUSES WHERE PEOPLE WERE BEING ABUSED, IT ACTUALLY BEING TURNED OUT MORE AT RISK THEN WHEN THEY WENT IN. AND THAT DYNAMIC WASN’T A DYNAMIC THAT ANYONE HAD THE COURAGE TO DISRUPT. YOU’RE RIGHT, WE HAD A PERIOD IN THE 50S AND THE 60S WHERE EVERYONE WANTED TO KNOW WHAT THE REAL ANSWERS WERE. AND WE ACTUALLY BEGAN TO THINK MORE DEEPLY ABOUT LONGSTANDING, VEXING PROBLEMS. SEGREGATION, RACIAL BIAS. EVEN OUR CONVERSATION ABOUT THE WAR, WHICH WAS HEATED, WAS ROOTED IN A QUEST FOR ANSWERS, WHAT’S REALLY NECESSARY. AND I DIDN’T SEE THAT IN THE ’70S AND THE ’80S AND THE ’90S. IT WAS REALLY DOMINATED BY PANDERING. WE HAD CRIMINOLOGIST GOING AROUND SAYING SOME CHILDREN AREN’T CHILDREN THEY’RE SUPER PREDATORS, AND THAT WORD BECAME ACCEPTED AS A LEGITIMATE WAY TO MAKE POLICY, AND I DON’T THAT COULD’VE HAPPENED IN AN ENVIRONMENT WHERE PEOPLE WERE, UH, NOT ALLOWED TO GET AWAY WITH WHAT I CALL THE POLITICS OF FEAR AND ANGER. BLACKMON: THERE WAS ALSO A BROAD VIEW, AND CERTAINLY PRESIDENT NIXON SHARED THIS AND OTHER POLITICIANS, THAT THE SYSTEM HAD BECOME TOO LENIENT, AND IT WAS TOO EASY FOR LAWBREAKERS TO ESCAPE PUNISHMENT, AND SO THERE WAS ACTUALLY SOMETHING OF A CONSENSUS THAT WE HAVE TO CRACK DOWN AND EVEN IF YOU LOOK BACK AT THE POLLING, EVEN AFRICAN AMERICANS TO SOME DEGREE FELT THAT WAY IN THAT PERIOD OF TIME. AND SO, UH, SO WAS IT JUST — OR WAS IT? STEVENSON: I THINK IT’S A LITTLE MORE COMPLICATED THAN THAT, I ACTUALLY THINK AT THE POINT WHEN RICHARD NIXON WAS DECLARING WAR ON DRUGS WE HAD NOT SEEN ANY INCREASE IN THE VIOLENT CRIME RATE. HE WAS REALLY RESPONDING TO THE CHAOS AND THE DISORDER ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES, OF STUDENTS ORGANIZING AND PROTESTING THE WAR. THE NARRATIVE WAS THEY’RE ONLY PROTESTING, THESE ARE GOOD KIDS, BUT THEY’RE PROTESTING BECAUSE THEY’VE BEEN DISRUPTED BY DRUGS, LSD, AND THAT WAS THE NARRATIVE, AND IT HAD NOTHING TO DO REALLY WITH VIOLENT CRIME. IT ACTUALLY BEGAN TO CREATE THESE DRUG LAWS IN THE LATE ’70S AND EARLY ’80S. THE PEAK IN VIOLENT CRIME ACTUALLY BEGAN IN THE LATE 80S, WHEN THE RESTRICTIONS ON ACCESS TO DRUGS, WHEN DRUG DEALING BECAME SO CHALLENGING THAT IT HAD BEEN TAKEN OVER BY VIOLENT GANGS. AND YOU HAD PEOPLE IN REALLY LOW-INCOME COMMUNITIES SEEING THE DRUG TRADE BECOME THIS INCREDIBLY ATTRACTIVE WAY TO MAKE MONEY, BUT FOR THE DRUG LAWS OF THE MID-’70S AND EARLY ’80S, I’M NOT SURE WE WOULD HAVE SEEN THAT PEAK IN VIOLENCE. AND THEN YOU HAD AN EPIDEMIC IN COMMUNITIES THAT HAD BEEN LARGELY ABANDONED. WHEN LYNDON JOHNSON WAS TALKING ABOUT THE GREAT SOCIETY WHEN PEOPLE WERE ACTUALLY TALKING ABOUT INTERVENTIONS TO HELP, PEOPLE WERE COMING FROM GENERATIONAL POVERTY THERE WAS HOPEFULNESS. AND THAT WAS ABANDONED DURING THE REAGAN YEARS WHEN CONGRESS STARTED THIS NARRATIVE OF HATING THE POOR, JUDGING THE POOR. YOU SAW DESPAIR GROW IN THIS COMMUNITIES. WE SAW KIDS BEING BORN INTO VIOLENT FAMILIES WHERE THEY HAD TO DEAL WITH, UH VIOLENT NEIGHBORHOODS AND VIOLENT SCHOOLS AND VIOLENCE AND BY THE EARLY ’90S, THAT TRAUMA LED TO PEOPLE JOINING GANGS, OR ABUSING DRUGS AND WE HAD THIS EPIDEMIC OF VIOLENCE. BUT EVEN AFTER THAT CALMED DOWN WE CONTINUE TO PUT PEOPLE IN JAIL AND PRISONS AT THESE RECORD LEVELS. SO I THINK THERE HAS BEEN A PEAK, THERE WAS A PEAK IN THE VIOLENT CRIME RATE IN THE LATE ’80S AND EARLY ’90S BUT IT DOESN’T REALLY EXPLAIN THIS DRAMATIC INCREASE IN OVER INCARCERATION. I THINK THAT’S EXPLAINED BY THESE LARGER, THESE LARGER NARRATIVES, IN MANY COMMUNITIES TODAY THE VIOLENT CRIME RATE IS WHERE IT WAS IN THE 1960S. AND YET, WE HAVE 2.3 MILLION PEOPLE IN JAILS AND PRISONS. BLACKMON: CRIME RATES HAVE FALLEN NOW QUITE PRECIPITOUSLY, UH, BUT THE PRISON POPULATION HAS PEAKED AND HAS DECLINED SOMEWHAT, BUT NOT IN A TERRIBLY SIGNIFICANT WAY. STEVENSON: THAT’S RIGHT, THAT’S RIGHT. AND EVEN THE DECLINES I’M WORRIED ABOUT TO BE HONEST BECAUSE I THINK THAT WE HAVEN’T THE REALLY IMPORTANT WORK OF REORIENTING OUR SYSTEM. WE’VE GOT A WHOLE NEW WORD NOW THAT WE USE NOW, REENTRY, YOU’VE GOT HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE THAT ARE COMING OUT OF JAILS AND PRISONS THAT ARE BRANDED AS CONVICTS, THEY CAN’T GET JOBS, THEY ARE DISPLACED BASED ON THEIR OFFENSES, THEY MAY NOT BE ABLE TO LIVE WHERE THERE IS HOUSING. WE’RE NOT PROVIDING THEM WITH LIFE SKILLS OR TRAINING, SO WE’RE SEEING A HIGH RECIDIVISM RATE, WHICH WILL MEAN IT’S GOING TO BE HARD TO BRING DOWN THIS PRISON POPULATION UNTIL WE REENGAGE WITH PEOPLE THAT WERE FORMERLY INCARCERATED. BLACKMON: IS THERE A SPECIFIC RACIAL ANIMUS BAKED INTO WHAT HAPPENED THAT’S DIRECTED AT AFRICAN AMERICANS? STEVENSON: NO, I THINK THAT THERE ABSOLUTELY IS, YOU KNOW I DON’T THINK THERE’S ANY REASON TO THINK THAT THERE WOULDN’T BE BECAUSE WE NEVER REALLY DEALT WITH THE NARRATIVE OF RACIAL DIFFERENCE THAT CREATED SLAVERY AND LYNCHING AND SEGREGATION. WE DIDN’T DEAL WITH THAT IN 1960S AND SO I THINK IT WOULD BE KIND OF FOOLISH TO THINK THAT THAT’S GOING TO GO SOMEWHERE WHEN WE HAVEN’T TALKED ABOUT IT. AND SO IT MANIFESTED ITSELF IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM. POLICE VIOLENCE WAS AN EPIDEMIC IN THE ’60S AND THE ’70S AND THE ’80S AND THE ’90S. IT JUST NEVER STOPPED, AS IT HASN’T TODAY. DAVID BALDUS FAMOUS RESEARCHER, HAD GONE TO GEORGIA, LOOKED AT EVERY HOMICIDE AND CAME UP WITH THIS REALLY STRIKING DATA THAT SAID YOU’RE 11 TIMES MORE LIKELY TO GET THE DEATH PENALTY IF THE VICTIM IS WHITE THAN IF THE VICTIM IS BLACK. TWENTY TWO TIMES MORE LIKELY TO GET THE DEATH PENALTY IF THE DEFENDANT IS BLACK AND THE VICTIM IS WHITE. AND ARMED WITH THESE DATA THEY WENT TO THE COURT, THE STATE OF GEORGIA SAID “WELL, LET’S USE OUR VARIABLES” AND EVEN THEIR VARIABLES MADE RACE THE GREATEST PREDICTOR OF WHO GOT THE DEATH PENALTY. IT MADE ITS WAY TO THE SUPREME COURT AND IN A FIVE -FOUR DECISION THE COURT, IN THIS CASE MCCLESKY VS KEMP, HELD THAT GEORGIA’S DEATH PENALTY IS CONSTITUTIONAL FOR TWO REASONS. FIRST, IF WE DEAL WITH RACIAL BIAS IN THE ADMINISTRATION OF THE DEATH PENALTY, IT’S GONNA BE JUST A MATTER OF TIME BEFORE LAWYERS COME BACK AND POINT OUT THE SAME RACIAL DISPARITIES PER DRUG CRIMES AND PROPERTY CRIMES AND SEX CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, AND WE CAN’T DEAL WITH THAT. BLACKMON: SO IT DOES SUGGEST THAT AS CLEAR AS IT IS THAT THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM HAS THESE SYSTEMS IN IT THAT THE TASK OF ACTUALLY RIDDING THE SYSTEM OF THESE BIASES WILL BE JUST AS DIFFICULT AND MONUMENTAL AND LIKELY TO BE DEFEATED AGAIN AND AGAIN IF HOPEFULLY, EVENTUALLY NOT, BUT LIKELY TO FACE SET BACK AFTER SETBACK IN THE SAME WAY THE SCHOOL DESEGRE — SCHOOL INTEGRATION HAS BEEN LARGELY HELD BACK. STEVENSON: RIGHT, BUT YOU HAVE TO START WITH A COMMITMENT. AND I DON’T, I THINK WE MADE THAT COMMITMENT IN EDUCATION AND IT HAS NOT BEEN IMPLEMENTED IN THE WAY WE WOULD LIKE TO, BUT I’M A LIVING WITNESS THAT IT WAS IMPLEMENTED SOME. THERE’S A GENERATION OF PEOPLE LIKE ME THAT BENEFITTED FROM BEING ABLE TO GO COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES THAT WERE NOT OPEN TO US BEFORE BROWN. AND WE HAVE — WE MADE A TOKEN ENGAGEMENT IN THAT AND YOU SEE SOME OF THAT IN MANY COMMUNITIES. BUT THERE ARE LOTS OF PEOPLE, A WHOLE GENERATION OF PEOPLE, WHO RESPONDED TO THAT COMMITMENT AND BENEFITTED FROM THAT COMMITMENT. WE HAVEN’T MADE A COMMITMENT IN THE MODERN ERA WHEN IT COMES TO CRIMINAL JUSTICE. AND WHAT’S ESPECIALLY DISAPPOINTING TO ME ABOUT THAT, IS THAT THE COURTS HAVE A GREATER ROLE IN ENFORCING SOME OF THESE RIGHTS THAN THEY MAY MIGHT HAVE IN SOME OTHER AREAS, MORE SO THAN THE EDUCATION AREA. AND IF YOU DON’T HAVE AN INSTITUTION LIKE THE COURT COMMITTED TO THE RULE OF LAW, EVEN WHEN PEOPLE ARE AGAINST IT , THEN WE’RE NOT GONNA MAKE PROGRESS. I MEAN, THERE WAS NEVER A TIME IN MY COMMUNITY WHERE YOU COULD GET THE MAJORITY OF PEOPLE TO VOTE TO END JIM CROW. IF IT WAS LEFT TO THE POLITICS OF THE ERA, ALABAMA WOULD STILL BE SEGREGATED, MISSISSIPPI WOULD STILL BE SEGREGATED, VIRGINIA WOULD STILL BE SEGREGATED. YOU WOULDN’T SEE THE KIND OF TRANSFORMATION THAT WE’VE SEEN IN SOME OF THESE COMMUNITIES. BUT, IT TOOK THE COMMITMENT FROM THE COURT TO SAY, NO, THIS IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL, AND WE’RE NOW OBLIGATED TO ENFORCE THAT, TO MOVE THE POLITICS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION. WHAT’S TROUBLING TO ME ABOUT WHAT I’M SEEING IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM ERA IS THAT WE HAVEN’T MADE THE COMMITMENT — THE SUPREME COURT IN MCCLESKEY SAYS, “WE’RE NOT COMMITTED TO ELIMINATING RACIAL BIAS IN THE ADMINISTRATION OF THE DEATH PENALTY.” WHICH SAYS SOMETHING REALLY POWERFUL. I THINK MCCLESKEY IS THE DRED SCOTT OF OUR GENERATION. I THINK IT’S THE PLESSY V FERGUSON OF THE 20TH CENTURY, LATE 20TH CENTURY. AND WE HAVEN’T SOUNDED THE ALARM BELLS BECAUSE I THINK WE’VE BEEN DISTRACTED BY THE APPEARANCE OF PROGRESS IN TOO MANY PLACES THAT DON’T MATTER AS MUCH AS WHERE IT REALLY MATTERS, AND THAT’S IN THE SPACES WHERE PEOPLE ARE VULNERABLE AND ABUSED, AND NEGLECTED AND AT RISK. AND THAT’S WHY I THINK OF THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM EFFORT, I THINK OF ISSUES OF THE DEATH PENALTY AS CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUES. I DO. I DON’T THINK YOU CAN SAY I STAND WITH CIVIL RIGHTS, I SUPPORT CIVIL RIGHTS AND BE INDIFFERENT, TO EXECUTING PEOPLE BECAUSE THEY’RE BLACK AND BROWN. TOLERATING A CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM THAT TREATS YOU BETTER IF YOU’RE RICH AND GUILTY THAN IF YOU’RE POOR AND INNOCENT, EXCEPTING THIS HIGH RATE OF ERROR, BECAUSE YOU DON’T IMAGINE THAT YOU’RE GONNA BE VICTIMIZED IN THAT WAY. AND SO I THINK THERE’S A LOT OF WORK THAT HAS TO BE DONE. I SAY TO PEOPLE, ‘IF YOU THINK THAT YOU WOULD’VE BEEN AN ABOLITIONIST DURING THE TIME OF SLAVERY, IF YOU THINK YOU WOULD’VE BEEN CRUSADING AGAINST LYNCHING DURING THE FIRST HALF OF THE 20TH CENTURY, IF YOU THINK YOU WOULD’VE MARCHED WITH DR. KING IN THE 1950S AND ’60S, AND YOU DO NOTHING ABOUT MASS INCARCERATION, EXCESSIVE PUNISHMENT, AND THE RACIALIZED ENFORCEMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE, THEN YOU DON’T HAVE CREDIBILITY. THIS IS THAT ISSUE AT THIS MOMENT AND TO BE INDIFFERENT, AND SILENT, AND INACTIVE IMPLICATES THE CREDIBILITY, THOSE ASSERTIONS THAT YOU WOULD’VE BEEN AN ABOLITIONIST. BLACKMON: BUT THE EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE IS A LITTLE BIT OF A DIFFERENT ANIMAL FROM SOME OF THE THINGS THAT MAYBE YOU’RE MORE FAMILIAR TO, TO PEOPLE WHO ARE INTERESTED IN THIS ISSUE. WE’VE ALL HEARD ABOUT THE INNOCENCE PROJECT AND SOME SIMILAR ORGANIZATIONS THAT ARE VERY FOCUSED JUST ON DEATH PENALTY CASES PRIMARILY, AND GETTING PEOPLE AND PREVENTING EXECUTIONS AND EXONERATING THE INNOCENT THERE. WE ARE FAMILIAR WITH MICHELLE ALEXANDER AND OTHER SORT OF SCHOLARS AND VOICES OUT THERE TALKING ABOUT THESE SORT OF THINGS IN BROAD NUMBERS. BUT, THE EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE HAS TAKEN ON A MUCH WIDER RANGE OF CASES NOT NECESSARILY INVOLVING JUST CAPITAL CASES IN THE POSSIBILITY OF THE DEATH PENALTY. SO YOU’VE GOT HUNDREDS OF CASES THAT YOU’RE INVOLVED WITH AND THEN ANY NUMBER OF THESE VERY SIGNIFICANT ONES THAT HAVE HAD REALLY DRAMATIC OUTCOMES. STEVENSON: YEAH, YOU’RE RIGHT. I MEAN WE STARTED OUT AS AN ORGANIZATION JUST PROVIDING LEGAL SERVICES JUST TO PEOPLE ON DEATH ROW. I MEAN THERE ARE LOTS OF STATES THAT STILL DON’T HAVE PUBLIC DEFENDER SYSTEMS, WHICH MANY PEOPLE DON’T KNOW, AND ALABAMA’S ONE OF THEM. AND SO WE WENT THERE TO HELP, MEET THE LEGAL NEEDS OF PEOPLE WHO ARE LITERALLY DYING FOR LEGAL ASSISTANCE, BUT IT BECAME CLEAR TO ME THAT WE WERE HAVING LOTS OF PROBLEMS IN OTHER PARTS OF OUR SYSTEMS. SO WE STARTED WORKING ON CASES OF PEOPLE CONVICTED OF LOW-LEVEL PROPERTY CRIMES AND DRUG CRIMES, WHO GOT LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE. REALLY EXTREME SENTENCING, REPRESENTING PEOPLE SERVING LIFE FOR WRITING A BAD CHECK OF $30, AND THINGS LIKE THAT. AND WE WANTED TO CHALLENGE THAT. AND THEN WE WANTED TO CHALLENGE THE WAY CHILDREN ARE BEING PROSECUTED. THE UNITED STATES NOW HAS 250,000 KIDS WHO HAVE BEEN PROSECUTED AS ADULTS, WHO ARE SERVING LONG PRISON SENTENCES. WE HAVE 3,000 CHILDREN WHO HAVE BEEN SENTENCED TO DIE IN PRISON. AND WORKING ON THOSE KINDS OF CASES FOR ME HAS BEEN REALLY HEARTBREAKING BECAUSE YOU SEE THESE CHILDREN, 13, 14, 15 PLACED IN ADULT JAILS WHERE THEY’RE TARGETED FOR SEXUAL VIOLENCE, WHERE THEY’RE ABUSED, AND IT JUST IS SHAMEFUL THAT WE’VE ALLOWED THAT TO HAPPEN. SO, WE STARTED TRYING TO DEAL WITH THOSE CASES, AND THEN WE STARTED WORKING WITH PEOPLE WHO ARE SERIOUSLY MENTALLY ILL. WE’VE GOT A LOT OF PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES THAT ARE JUST VULNERABLE TO A SOCIETY THAT INCARCERATES ANYTHING THAT IT DOESN’T UNDERSTAND AND I THINK THAT CHARACTERIZES MUCH OF OUR POLICY WRITING. AND SO NOW WE DO A LOT OF CASES THAT ARE DESIGNED TO HELP INDIVIDUALS. WE DO A LOT OF CASES THAT ARE TRYING TO CHANGE THINGS IN A BIG WAY, EXPAND THE 8TH AMENDMENT, I THINK THE 8TH AMENDMENT THROUGH MOST OF THE 20TH CENTURY WAS AN UNDERUTILIZED CONSTITUTIONAL PROTECTION THAT’S VITAL TO A JUST SOCIETY, WE HAVE TO BE VIGILANT IN PROTECTING AGAINST CRUELTY BY THE STATE OR BY THE GOVERNMENT AGAINST A PARTICULAR PEOPLE AND THIS ERA OF MASS INCARCERATION HAS NOW, I THINK, USHERED IN AN ERA OF CRUELTY THAT’S GOING TO HAVE TO BE FOUGHT. AND SO WE’RE DOING A LOT OF LITIGATION ASKING THE COURT TO STEP IN AND TO RESPOND TO THESE PROBLEMS. AND THEN THE LAST THING WE’RE DOING OUR, OUR LATEST PROJECT, WHICH IS A PROJECT AIMED AT TALKING MORE BROADLY ABOUT RACE AND TRYING TO CHANGE THE NARRATIVE ABOUT OUR HISTORY OF RACIAL INEQUALITY. BLACKMON: BUT YOU ARE STILL PURSUING A STRATEGY JUST AS THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT DID, THE LEGAL STRATEGY OF THE CIVIL RIGHT MOVEMENT AND OTHER GREAT REFORM INITIATIVES THAT WE’VE SEEN. IT’S A STRATEGY THAT ACCEPTS THE SYSTEM, THAT THE SYSTEM WE HAVE IS THE SYSTEM WE’RE GONNA HAVE, AND IT ACCEPTS THAT IT HAS TO BE REFORMED, AND IT IS ESSENTIALLY AS YOU REFERRED TO EARLIER, A RATHER THAN, RATHER THAN WAITING ON THE PEOPLE TO — FOR THEIR VIEWS TO CHANGE AND TO CHANGE THE POLITICIANS, IT’S USING THE CONSTITUTION TO, TO FORCE SYSTEMS TO CONFORM TO THE CONSTITUTION. IS IT POSSIBLE THAT THERE IS ANY EVEN MORE RADICAL APPROACH TO ALL THIS? IS OUR SYSTEM SO FLAWED THAT IT CAN’T REALLY BE REPAIRED? STEVENSON: I, NO. I ACTUALLY THINK THAT HISTORY TEACHES US THAT IF THERE’S COURAGE, IF THERE’S HOPE, IF PEOPLE ARE WILLING TO FIGHT YOU WILL NEED A RIGHTS FRAMEWORK TO ADVANCE THINGS. I MEAN YOU KNOW, YOU THINK OF THE HISTORY OF THIS COUNTRY, YOU KNOW, WE DIDN’T MAKE THE PROGRESS WE COULD’VE MADE ON RACE AT THE END OF THE CIVIL WAR, BECAUSE THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES DIDN’T ALLOW CONGRESS TO PASS CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS. I MEAN, THE LAW TO FREE VOTING RIGHTS AND ACCESS IT WAS ACTUALLY PASSED IN THE 19TH CENTURY AND THE SUPREME COURT STRUCK THOSE LAWS DOWN. THEY DIDN’T ALLOW THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT TO PROTECT PEOPLE FROM TERRORISM FROM THE CLAN AND THESE OTHER GROUPS. HAD THEY DONE THAT, WE WOULD’VE HAD A VERY DIFFERENT HISTORY. WE ULTIMATELY SUCCEEDED IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS ERA NOT JUST WITH THE ACTIVISM, I MEAN, YOU KNOW, THE SUCCESS ON THE STREET WAS ALWAYS ACCOMPANIED BY AND IN SOME WAYS A PRELUDE TO A SUCCESS IN COURT. WITHOUT THOSE COURT DECISIONS THAT PUSHED BACK AGAINST SOME OF THESE PRACTICES, I DON’T THINK WE WOULD’VE SEEN THE PROGRESS THAT WE SAW. SO, NO, I’M ACTUALLY ENCOURAGED BY WHAT HISTORY HAS TAUGHT US. WHAT HISTORY TEACHES ME IS THAT YOU CAN BE A MINORITY YOU CAN BE SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T HAVE POWER, YOU CAN BE SOMEONE WHO, AH, CAN’T GET THE MASSES TO SUPPORT YOU AND STILL ASSERT YOUR RIGHT TO BE HUMAN, TO BE PROTECTED, TO BE FREE FROM BIAS AND DISCRIMINATION AND IF THERE IS JUSTICE, THAT RIGHT WILL BE HEARD. AND THAT’S THE VIRTUE OF A SOCIETY THAT IS COMMITTED TO THE RULE OF LAW. I WOULDN’T WANNA LIVE IN A WORLD THAT WASN’T GOVERNED BY THE RULE OF LAW BECAUSE I’M ALWAYS GONNA SIDE WITH THE POOR AND POWERLESS. I DON’T TRUST POWER AS A SOURCE OF GUIDANCE AND KNOWLEDGE. I THINK THERE’S SOMETHING RICH AND REMARKABLE THAT COMES FROM POWERLESSNESS, WHEN PEOPLE ARE REQUIRED TO BE HOPEFUL, WHEN THEY ARE SURROUNDED BY ABUSE AND NEGLECT THEY CREATE SOMETHING IMPORTANT AND RESONATE AND SOME WAYS TRANSCENDENT AND THAT’S THE CREATIVE SPACES OF THIS NATION, AND I THINK THE GREATNESS OF AMERICA IT CAN’T REALLY BE FOUND IN WHICH THE WAY IN WHICH THE MASSES HAVE LEAD US TO PLACES. THE GREATNESS HAS BEEN FOUND, AND THE WAY PEOPLE HAVE RESISTED MASSES WHEN THE MASSES GET ALL OFF-NOTE, WHEN THEY START DOING THE THINGS THAT ARE WRONG AND UNFAIR AND ABUSIVE. AND SO I HAVE GREAT CONFIDENCE THAT IF WE PUSH HARD ENOUGH, WE CAN MAKE THINGS BETTER, BUT IT’S NOT POLLYANNA, RIGHT? I THINK YOU’VE GOTTA BE WILLING TO SAY STAND WHEN OTHER PEOPLE SAY “SIT DOWN.” YOU GOTTA BE WILLING TO SPEAK WHEN OTHER PEOPLE SAY, “BE QUIET.” AND THERE’S NOTHING INCOMPATIBLE WITH BEING ABOUT A LAWYER FIGHTING IN THIS SYSTEM WITH THAT KIND OF ACTIVISM, WITH THAT KIND OF COURAGE. PEOPLE SAY TO ME WELL, YOU KNOW, YOU HAVE TO DO HARD THINGS ALL THE TIME AND ITS HARD, YOU’ RIGHT, BUT I’VE NEVER HAD TO SAY IN MY HEAD, “IT’S BLOODY BUT NOT BOWED.” AND BECAUSE I’M STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF PEOPLE WHO’VE SAID THAT TO GET ME WHERE I AM, I CAN’T ABANDON A COMMITMENT TO RIGHTS, TO FIGHTING, TO CHANGING THIS SYSTEM. YOU KNOW, I FEEL THAT IN SOME WAYS THAT WE’VE GIVEN AWAY TOO MUCH CREDIT, YOU KNOW, ENSLAVED PEOPLE, INDIGENOUS PEOPLE, IMMIGRANT PEOPLE, OWN THIS NATION. WE DON’T — WE’RE NOT VISITORS, WE’RE NOT GUESTS, WE CREATED THE WEALTH AND THE POWER, AND THE CREATIVITY, AND THE CULTURE, WE OWN IT, AND WE SHOULDN’T GIVE IT AWAY TO PEOPLE BECAUSE THEY SAY, “YOU DON’T BELONG.” BECAUSE THEY SAY, “YOU’RE AN IMMIGRANT. BECAUSE YOU’RE BLACK, YOU’RE BROWN, YOU’RE INDIGENOUS.” AND IF WE OWN IT THEN WE HAVE — WE HAVE TO USE OUR VOICES TO CONTROL IT, TO PARTICIPATE IN IT. AND I DON’T MEAN AT THE EXCLUSION OF SOMEONE ELSE, I MEAN AS AN EQUAL PARTNER WITH OTHER PEOPLE. AND THAT’S WHY I DON’T — I’M NOT INTERESTED IN — SOME RADICALLY DIFFERENT SYSTEM FOR THE SAKE OF RADICALISM. I’M INTERESTED IN SOME RADICALLY DIFFERENT RESULTS, THROUGH ANY MEANS AVAILABLE, AND WE’VE GOT LOTS OF MEANS IN FRONT OF US IF WE CAN UTILIZE THEM. BLACKMON: WE’RE IN THE MIDST OF THIS PERIOD OF ACTIVISM. BLACK LIVES MATTER MOVEMENT ALL OF THE TENSION THAT’S BEEN DRAWN TO POLICE CONDUCT THAT HAS HELPED SHARPEN OUR UNDERSTANDING, I THINK, OF THE PROBLEMS OF MASS INCARCERATION. IS IT YOUR SENSE THAT, THAT THERE IS AN INCREASE IN THE NUMBER OF THOSE SORTS OF INCIDENTS THAT IS OCCURRING, OR IS IT THAT BECAUSE THERE IS NOW A CAMERA IN EVERYBODY’S HANDS THAT WE ARE SEEING IT, AND THAT ESSENTIALLY WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW HAS BEEN HAPPENING AT THE SAME RATE FOR A VERY LONG TIME, IT’S JUST THAT IN THE PAST WE DIDN’T HAVE THE GLARING EVIDENCE OF EXACTLY WHAT IT WAS. STEVENSON: YEAH, I THINK IT’S THE LATTER. I THINK THESE PROBLEMS HAVE ALWAYS EXISTED. POLICE VIOLENCE DIRECTED AT PEOPLE OF COLOR HAS JUST — HAS BEEN GOING ON FOR DECADES AND, MOST SOCIAL DISTURBANCES OVER THE LAST 50 YEARS IN COMMUNITIES OF COLOR HAVE BEEN TRIGGERED BY POLICE VIOLENCE. BECAUSE WHEN YOU’RE BLACK IN THIS COUNTRY, YOU ARE PRESUMED DANGEROUS AND GUILTY. AND EVERY PERSON OF COLOR, ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, LEARNS THAT. AND IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW MUCH EDUCATION YOU GET, I HAVE TO TELL MY STUDENTS I DON’T CARE HOW MANY DEGREES YOU GET, YOU’RE STILL GOING TO BE FACING THE PRESUMPTION OF DANGEROUSNESS AND GUILT WHEN YOU WALK OUT ON THOSE STREETS. AND THAT’S BURDENSOME, IT’S EXHAUSTING, AND YOU GET TIRED OF IT. AND THEN WHEN YOU SEE IT MANIFESTING ITSELF IN SOME LETHAL WAY, THIS TIME ON CAMERA, IT ENRAGES YOU BECAUSE YOU’VE BEEN DEALING WITH THIS BURDEN YOUR WHOLE LIFE. AND SO, NO, I DON’T THINK THERE’S ANYTHING NEW ABOUT IT. I THINK, IF THERE’S ANYTHING NEW, IT’S OUR ABILITY TO PROVE IT, TO DOCUMENT IT. PEOPLE HAVE SAID THAT WHAT THAT — WHEN THAT AFRICAN AMERICAN MAN WAS SHOT IN NORTH CHARLESTON BY A POLICE OFFICER, IN THE BACK WHILE HE’S RUNNING AWAY, PEOPLE HAVE SAID IT’S NOT POSSIBLE THAT A POLICE OFFICER THERE WOULD DO THAT, BUT FOR THE CAMERA. AND I THINK THAT’S THE REAL CHALLENGE. AND WHAT WE’RE NOT TALKING ABOUT ENOUGH, IN MY OPINION, IS WHY IT IS SO OVERWHELMING FOR PEOPLE OF COLOR, WHY THIS OUGHT TO BE SO OVERWHELMING FOR EVERYONE TO BE LIVING IN A SOCIETY WHERE YOU’RE PRESUMED DANGEROUS AND GUILT WHERE YOU HAVE TO BEAR THIS BURDEN. I WAS TELLING SOME YOUNG KIDS, I SAID, YOU KNOW, WHEN I GREW UP, MY GRANDFATHER TAUGHT ME, HE’D SAY THESE THINGS THAT ARE PAINFUL TO HEAR, BUT HE WOULD SAY “DON’T EVER FORGET YOU’RE BLACK.” WHEN PEOPLE FORGET THEY’RE BLACK, THEY GET HURT. WE’RE JUST STILL DEALING WITH THE SYMPTOMS OF OUR HISTORY OF WHITE SUPREMACY, OF NARRATIVES OF RACIAL DIFFERENCE WHEN WE TALK ABOUT POLICE VIOLENCE, AND WE’VE GOTTA COMMIT TO DEALING WITH THE IMPLICIT BIAS AND THE EXPLICIT BIAS THAT MOTIVATES THAT, THAT AGGRESSION AND THAT VIOLENCE. THAT’S THE ONLY WAY WE CAN MAKE PROGRESS. BLACKMON: THANK YOU FOR BEING HERE. STEVENSON: YOU’RE WELCOME. BLACKMON: THE BOOK IS, “JUST MERCY: A STORY OF JUSTICE AND REDEMPTION.” WE HOPE YOU WILL JOIN THIS CONVERSATION WITH “AMERICAN FORUM,” ON THE MILLER CENTER FACEBOOK PAGE OR BY FOLLOWING US ON TWITTER @DOUGLASBLACKMON OR @AMERICANFORUMTV. TO SEND US A COMMENT, WATCH OTHER EPISODES, DOWNLOAD PODCASTS, OR READ A TRANSCRIPT, VISIT US AT MILLERCENTER.ORG/AMERICANFORUM. I’M DOUG BLACKMON. SEE YOU NEXT WEEK. ♪♪

2 thoughts on “American Forum: Can Our System of Justice Be Trusted?

  1. Bryan Stevenson is the downfall of our Society. Promoting Racism is not the way to get rid of Racism. Telling people Slavery never ended, it evolved, is so idiotic. Common Sense goes out the window with Liberals. I mean if you watch CNN, YOUR DUMB.

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