I wouldn’t describe myself as a voracious reader. I love books but I read a lot less than I’d like to or make time for. When I do sit down with a good book, my preferred genre is non-fiction. I love to better understand the experiences of others. It’s how I grow in my thinking and world view. Every so often a book comes along that profoundly changes me. It opens my eyes to a topic or issue I haven’t thought about, likely because it hasn’t impacted me personally. This year that book was Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, a gift, from my favorite criminal justice reform advocate Mark Holden. Just Mercy tells the story of a black man in Alabama, Walter McMillian, who is falsely convicted and sentenced to die for a murder he didn’t commit. That’s the high-level summary. The book, which has been made into a movie that opens on Christmas Day, goes much deeper. It’s an indictment on the inequalities in our criminal justice system and how a model built on punishment rather than redemption negatively impacts us all.
I grew up in a small town in upstate New York in the 1970s. I realize now that I was unaware about the level of racism that existed in our country. I credit my mom for this. Racism is learned behavior, it’s not a trait or proclivity that any of us are born with. One of my earliest memories with my mom was the day I met a black boy in nursery school (my first time exposed to someone who was a different color than I was). I asked, “What is he?” My mom replied deliberately and sternly, “He’s just like you. His skin is just a different color than ours.” From that day forward, that became my world view. We are all the same, regardless of color.
A Flawed Criminal Justice System
As I read Just Mercy, I was embarrassed by my own ignorance. It wasn’t just the startling realization that 1 in 25 people sitting on death row is innocent (as appalling as that is); it was also learning about the trauma that harsh sentences have on individuals and families and how it affects people for generations. Cycles of poverty, mass incarceration, anger and distrust of law enforcement become the outcomes of our flawed criminal justice system. This gift, became knowledge, (thank you Mark) and now that I know, I feel the need to share. I believe this book is the wake-up call America needs to fix our criminal justice system, which is why it became the gift I give to everyone who reads. I feel that strongly that it’s a book that should be read by all.
So you can imagine my excitement when I found out that Just Mercy would be adapted into a feature film with Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordon by Warner Brothers. These two Hollywood heavy-hitters would help maximize interest in Stevenson’s story and, hopefully, spark the action we need to begin righting all the wrongs in our justice system.
Everyone Deserves a Second Chance
As the Chief Social Responsibility Officer for Televerde, a sales and marketing company that hires, compensates and trains incarcerated women for professional career positions through on-the job experience, my job is to amplify our purpose and inspire companies in the business community to embrace second chance hiring. Today, one in four Americans has a criminal background. For them, finding a job can be next to impossible. Second chance hiring is the belief that if someone is ready to turn their life around, they deserve a chance to do so (and we know that employment can be the difference between becoming a success story and returning to crime). Through my work, I partner with many criminal justice reform advocates, which is how I came to know Represent Justice.
Represent Justice is a campaign that was created to help promote the film, Just Mercy, and support the key messages of justice reform. In late-November, I travelled to Los Angeles to spend the day with the entire Represent Justice team. We came together to get to know each other, share our stories, and talk about our passion for criminal justice reform and how we could work together to drive national reform. We ended the day with a pre-screening of Just Mercy, which absolutely lived up to the book (my first time saying that!) It’s my goal now to get everyone to commit to see the film so as a country we can accomplish the following:
1. Understand the problem. We’ve designed a criminal justice system that values toughness over fairness. This has created not only a revolving prison door, but a growing trend of wrongful convictions that Innocence groups estimate to be between 2% to 10% in the United States. In a prison population that is 2.3 million, this means between 46,000 to 230,000 are innocent. Our criminal justice system isn’t perfect because humans aren’t. We make mistakes. This is why we must not rush to judgment. We must lead with empathy and proceed within the letter of the law for all, regardless of their economic status, race, ethnicity, and background.
2. End the stigma. Blacks are only 13% of the American population but make up the majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes who are later exonerated. Blacks constitute 47% of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016). What’s more, black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, and they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences. We need to change the stereotype of black men as criminals. We also need new policies that eliminate racial disparities.
3. Give hope. As of April 2019, there were 2,673 people on death row in the United States. Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court, 1,499 people have been executed. But here’s the thing: since 1973, 166 individuals have been exonerated from death row in the United States. These numbers should give everyone pause. They actually scare me!! There’s no question — the death penalty carries the inherent risk of executing an innocent person and there are people on death row today espousing their innocence and awaiting further DNA testing, most recently is Rodney Reed who was granted an indefinite stay of execution in Texas literally days before his scheduled execution. We can never right a wrongful execution. For this reason, states and our federal government need to shut it down and restore hope for individuals and their families.
Humans have a propensity to wait until issues affect them personally before they work to bring about change and reform. It’s too late then. Too many individuals and their families suffer unjustly. We must be proactive and connect dots sooner. Even if you don’t know someone directly affected by our criminal justice system, you are impacted as a taxpayer and as a citizen of a country that knowingly doesn’t provide a fair and just system for all. This should make us all uncomfortable and inspire proactive action at the national level. Give yourself the gift of Just Mercy this Christmas: read the book, see the movie, spread the word. There is no greater gift than when we educate ourselves and pledge to build a better tomorrow.