Stevenson's focus is on the US criminal justice system, particularly our practice of capital punishment, at times including the execution of people with mental illness or disability and of minors, and our practice of treating children--sometimes as young as 13--as adults in charging, adjudication, and sentencing. He illustrates these unjust places in the criminal justice system with individual, personal stories of the clients his non-profit practice has served, many of whom they are unable to save.
Alongside the overt message that we should abolish the death penalty and treat accused minors and those with mental illness or disability differently than we have for too long is a more subtle message--that the sort of retributive justice our system is built on just doesn't work. In the introduction, Stevenson writes:
[This book] is about how easily we condemn and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.Fear, anger, and distance. Most crime can be traced back to a breakdown in community, a moment or a part of systemic conditions that fails to uphold the promises made to every member of the community. (Don't argue that people just do things because they're cruel or evil or bad. If that's what you think, read this book and others like it.) When other members of the community respond with fear or anger (or both), the bonds of the community are further broken.
Our current system is not the only possibility. We could have a different system. We can look to other parts of the world, or we can look to our own juvenile justice system, which, in many parts of the country, puts much greater emphasis on restorative justice. We can do something different.
Just Mercy is heavy reading, but worthwhile. It was particularly heavy for me least week with today looming ahead of me on the calendar, today marking five years since my husband's death at the hands of an unlicensed teenage driver. Heavy reading, but definitely worthwhile. As I read, I remembered those early days of shock and numbness and confusion, and I looked again at the decisions I made in my role as victim--my choice not to insist the teenager be tried as an adult, my choice not to sue the family in civil court, my choice not to continue attending the regular probation hearings after the disposition hearing--and I don't regret any of those choices. I also recognize the privilege of working with a prosecutor listened to me and supported my decisions. As Stevenson's stories attest, such is not the case everywhere.
The lifetimes of work by Stevenson and others has been effective. Executions by the state are rare in the US these days, and we've changed our position on executing or sentencing to life without parole for minors and those with mental illness and disabilities.
We still have questions to ask ourselves, though--about forgiveness, about the possibility of rehabilitation, about the differences between adolescent brains and adult ones, about the nature of mercy and what justice looks like.