In a nation where mass incarceration policies have devastated poor and minority communities, people of faith and hope can bring about change, an advocate for criminal justice reform told a Baylor University crowd.
“Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists,” said Bryan Stevenson, founding executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy. He spoke as part of a lecture series sponsored by Baylor’s Academy for Leadership Development.
Potential change agents need to understand the “power of proximity,” Stevenson said. When people see poverty and injustice for themselves, it changes them, and they want to change society, he insisted.
“My career has been defined by my choice to be proximate,” said Stevenson, a Harvard Law School graduate who provides legal representation to death-row inmates and defendants treated unjustly due to their race, socio-economic status or age.
“The United States is a very different place today than it was 40 years ago,” he said, noting the incarcerated population has increased from 300,000 to 2.3 million, and a disproportionate number are poor and from racial minorities.
About 10,000 children are housed in adult jails and prisons, where they are at least five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than if they were in juvenile facilities, he noted. More than a dozen states have no minimum age for trying children as adults.
“We have allowed this big gap to exist” that enables privileged Americans to ignore vulnerable children who engage in destructive behavior because they have grown up in an atmosphere of abuse, neglect, violence and crushing poverty, he said.
Insulated from the reality of the daily lives of those children, the privileged find it easy to judge them as adults rather than recognize “all children are children,” he added.
Change the narrative
Meaningful transformation in the United States will require a willingness to “change the narrative,” Stevenson insisted.
“We’ve got to understand the narrative that sustains the status quo,” he said, adding, “It is a narrative rooted in the politics of fear and anger.”
Unlike other nations with a history of slavery, the United States uniquely created a narrative of racial differentiation and white supremacy to provide moral justification for it, he asserted.
Because Americans failed to address that underlying narrative, emancipation did not immediately result in justice for African-Americans.
“I don’t think slavery ended. I believe it just evolved,” he said, pointing to decades of what he described as terrorism against African-Americans.
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SOURCE: Baptist Standard