Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal
Justice Initiative, on activism, his big-screen
moment and what people should know
about a criminal-justice system in which
black adults are about six times more likely
to face imprisonment than white adults
Eliminating bail for minor offenses
is getting a lot of attention. Is that a
good place to start? I think we need
bail reform, but bail doesn’t get us to the
more fundamental issues. We have a lot
more to gain by talking more directly to
Michael B. Jordan plays you in Just
Mercy, the movie based on your
memoir. What’s that like? For the first
20 years of my career, I was content to
just be in the courts [as a death- penalty
lawyer]. I thought of my work the way
people think about the Underground
Railroad: be discreet and stealthy,
and get things done quietly. But about
20 years ago, the atmosphere outside
the courtroom became so hostile that
it was impacting what could get done.
That’s when I decided to move into the
public realm. I wrote a book. We built
[the Legacy Museum and National
Memorial for Peace and Justice]. The
movie is the latest manifestation of
that idea. A lot more people will
watch a two-hour movie than will
read a 300-page book.
We’ve seen a wave of activism
recently among young people.
Are you encouraged? I live in Mont-
gomery, Ala. People in this commu-
nity would put on their Sunday best
and go places to advocate for civil
rights knowing full well they would
be beaten and bloodied. And they
changed the temperature in this coun-
try. Their activism broke the will of a
nation that was intent on never looking
at the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
It’s just not enough to buy a T-shirt or
issue a tweet, and do some of the things
that people sometimes do and confuse it
for activism that makes a difference. It’s
what you do with your life. You’ve got to
get proximate to suffering and injustice.
Reforming criminal justice has growing bipartisan
support. President Trump signed a law in 2018 that,
among other things, offers exceptions to mandatory
minimums and reduces crack sentences. What do
you make of it? I don’t think most people understand
the nature of this problem. First of all, the First Step Act
impacts less than 1% of the people who are incarcerated
in this country. It applies only to federal prisons. It’s not
even a scratch.
So what do people need to understand? Since President
Richard Nixon, with his “tough on crime” rhetoric and
“war on drugs,” we have used a criminal-justice approach
when we should have used a public-health approach.
We’ve created a whole matrix for imprisoning, arresting,
condemning and marginalizing millions of people in this
country. We are the most punitive country in the world.
It’s so important to eliminate mandatory sentencing.
Has the opioid epidemic changed the attitudes of
white Americans toward criminal-justice issues?
Addiction and dependency is not a black-person issue.
It’s a crisis in America, and more people are seeing that.
But we need to radically retreat from the approach that’s
been popular over the last 50 years. I think the racialized
way we’ve used the criminal-justice system is a product of
what I call the politics of fear and anger.
Didn’t President Trump call himself the “law-and-
order candidate” in 2016? This is not a Trump problem.
Obviously this Administration has not been responsive to
these issues. But Bill Clinton was a law-and-order candi-
date. Every President has felt the need to move away from
any talk of rehabilitation.
Where is criminal-justice inequality most evident?
I give talks and say this system treats you better if you are
rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent. And
people nod their heads.
BETTER IF YOU
ARE RICH AND
IF YOU ARE
EMMA MCINTYRE—GETTY IMAGES