Lawyer, professor and human rights activist Bryan Stevenson brought some audience members on Monday afternoon to tears as used personal stories to advocate that the American criminal justice system reevaluate how it tries juveniles.
The founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an Alabama-based organization that promotes human rights and social justice on behalf of groups such as children and the mentally ill, Stevenson spoke to a crowd of roughly 200 students and faculty about stories of adolescents in the South who are sentenced to life prison, which he said is an “inhumane” punishment for children. He said juvenile criminals often come from broken households or abusive families, so they need protection rather than severe punishment.
“We live in an era when our political leadership has engaged in a politics of fear and anger,” Stevenson said, “and this has led to policies such as mass incarceration; policies that have forever altered the mindset of American society.”
In the 1980s, Stevenson said, people began thinking of underprivileged children from broken households as “super predators” — products of “social decay” who are likely to harm others. He said the spread of this fear led states to enact changes between 1989 until 1994 that allowed children to be tried as adults. He added that 90 percent of children sentenced to life in prison for non-homicide offenses come from African-American and Latino families.
Over the past decade, Stevenson said people have begun to realize that these types of children are not necessarily dangerous to society, but he said the laws were already institutionalized and “hundreds of 13- and 14-year-olds” had already been sent to “some of the most dangerous prisons in America.”
With laws that allow children to be incarcerated along with adults, he said, children are subjected to traumas from which they often cannot recover.
Stevenson told the story of one particular 14-year-old boy accused of murder whom he represented legally. The boy, Stevenson explained, had shot his stepfather after the stepfather physically abused the boy’s mother while intoxicated, knocking her unconscious.
“When I finally got the boy to talk to me, he didn’t start talking about his stepfather or even about his mother,” Stevenson said. “He told me instead about having been continuously physically abused and raped during the first couple of nights he spent in prison.”
Stevenson said that he wants to pioneer changes within the American criminal justice system by legally representing adolescents through EJI.
He said he hopes his victory in the 2010 case of Sullivan v. Florida, which ruled that sentencing a child accused of a non-homicide offence to life in prison falls under the category of “cruel and unusual punishment,” will be the beginning of a broader movement condemning life without parole sentences for children.
Renagh O’Leary LAW ’14 and Michael Nance LAW ’14 both said Stevenson’s talk was powerful and inspiring.
“Stevenson represents the trajectory of where law students, activists and people need to go,” Nance said. “His cause has a very humanizing character, and his ability to reach out to people through narrative is one of a kind.”
Igor Mitschka ’15, who writes for the Yale Undergraduate Law Review, said he was “especially touched” by the personal stories Stevenson shared with his audience. He added that Stevenson’s work is “incredibly admirable,” and he is able to persuasively present his stance.
The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles in 2005.