Just Mercy Themes
The main themes in Just Mercy are race, class, and structural violence; the problematic treatment of juvenile offenders; and advocacy and just mercy.
- Race, class, and structural violence: Black people and those in poverty are not only more likely to be arrested than others; they are also less likely to receive adequate representation and aid in legal processes.
- The problematic treatment of juvenile offenders: The increasing population of juvenile prisoners in the US risk sexual assault, trauma, and psychosis as a result.
- Advocacy and just mercy: Stevenson urges change, humanity, and justice—rather than judgment—at the systemic as well as the individual level.
Last Updated on June 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1176
Race, Class, and Structural Violence
One of the most prominent themes of Just Mercy is the way legal and political systems are loaded against minorities from the time before they are arrested to their incarceration. In other words, the very structures instituted to ensure order become instruments of abuse, especially for disadvantaged people and people of color. When Stevenson himself is subjected to a humiliating pat-down by police officers yards away from his home just because he was sitting in his car listening to music, he is well aware of how fast things would have deteriorated had he not kept his calm. While his measured response to the situation is a product of his exposure to the legal system, a young Black boy may not be as lucky. Any sudden movement or attempt to run away could quickly accelerate into perceived suspicious behavior at best and a shooting at worst. Thus, the very act of being Black in a white space stacks the odds against minorities.
Because those at the receiving end of abuse in courts and prisons are offenders, or delinquents, their abuse is trivialized, silenced, and even normalized. For instance, while rape is a heinous crime when it occurs in the general population, among prison inmates it is treated almost as a rite of passage. Stevenson specifically notes that deep class-based inequalities and race relations pay a significant part in the perpetuation of systemic or structural violence. He presents startling numbers to back his view: one out of every three African American men born in the US in the twentieth century is expected to be incarcerated once in their lives; “offenders in Georgia were eleven times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim was white than if the victim was black”; and “In Alabama, even though 65 percent of all homicide victims were black, nearly 80 percent of the people on death row were there for crimes against victims who were white.” Replicated across studies, these findings are in line with the othering of Black men and poor people. Not only are Black males more likely to be wrongly imprisoned, or shot at by police officers, their trials tend to be more biased. Stevenson notes that in the 1980s, 1990s, and even 2000s, cases with Black defendants were presided over by nearly all-white juries, even in states where forty to fifty percent of the population was Black.
As far as victims are concerned, Blacks, minorities, women, and poor people are also least likely to receive competent legal assistance and receive fewer calls from social workers and law enforcement officers. As Stevenson notes, “Some victims are more protected and valued than others.” With lack of proper representation, both poor defendants and victims have severely limited access to justice and higher rates of incarceration. For example, between 1980 and 2010, the population of women in prison in the United States increased a whopping 646 percent. Many of these women were victims of public hysteria regarding negligent mothering. The “dangerous mother” stereotype played into more prosperous and white neighbors often making phone calls to police to report instances of child abuse, without confirming the context. Another group similarly targeted included the mentally ill, many of whom now populate US prisons. Thus, Stevenson suggests the criminal justice system is riddled with biases that ironically perpetuate the cycle of crime.
The Problematic Treatment of Juvenile Offenders
Some of the most heartbreaking cases Stevenson details in his memoir are those concerning juvenile offenders, such as fourteen-year-old Charlie. Charlie is accused of murdering his mother’s boyfriend after the man beats Charlie’s mother until she passes out bleeding, the “pool of blood from the back of her head widening” on the floor. The extenuating circumstances of the murder and Charlie’s age clearly indicate he should be placed in a juvenile center, but bizarrely, he is detained at a county prison for adults. When Stevenson meets Charlie, the boy is traumatized to the point of being unresponsive. After much coaxing, he reveals he has been raped multiple times within days of being imprisoned.
Though Stevenson’s advocacy secures Charlie a release, and good Samaritans offer him rehabilitation, Charlie’s fate is unfortunately the exception to the rule. Manufactured hysteria over super-predators and budding psychopaths has caused the sentencing age of juveniles to be successively lowered in the US. Juveniles are among the most vulnerable populations in prisons, with Stevenson noting that juvenile offenders held in adult prisons are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted. Juveniles who have grown up in the prison system often report increasing trauma, learning difficulties, and even psychosis, as in the case of Trina Warren, who has been in jail for thirty-eight years, since the age of fourteen. Despite science suggesting that the neurobiology of children is distinctly different from that of adults, predisposing them to poor impulse control, the law continues to treat children harshly.
Advocacy and Just Mercy
Despite the overwhelming dockets piling up in the offices of organizations such as the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), every acquittal, reversal, or reduction of sentence is testimony to the power of advocating for the voiceless, as illustrated by Stevenson’s own painstaking, laborious work with defendants such as Walter McMillian. Sustained advocacy not only secures justice for individual cases, it also forces change at the systemic level. For instance, resistant voices and the work of legal aid organizations such as the EJI contributed to the Supreme Court in 2010 banning sentencing minors to life without parole on non-homicidal charges. In 2012, the court extended the ban to children accused of murder. According to Stevenson, if more people advocated for the rights of convicts, the focus of jurisprudence would change from filling prisons to social reform.
However, advocacy is possible only when people apply the principle of just mercy, or justice, rather than judgment, as the end of jurisprudence. Just mercy does not absolve victims of their crimes; rather it focuses on rehabilitating and transforming them by viewing them as flawed people rather than “felons,” “rapists,” “delinquents,” and other dehumanizing labels. One of the most interesting ways advocacy can be practiced, according to Stevenson, is through the act of paying attention, a principle he has inherited from his grandmother, “the daughter of enslaved people.” Carrying the intergenerational trauma of cultural displacement, as well as the practice of resistance, Stevenson’s grandmother would often tell him to “stay close,” since one “can’t understand most of the important things from a distance.” Stevenson discovers the depth of the truth contained in her maxim when he goes to intern with the SPDC in Georgia. His advocacy begins when he sees each client up close, viewing them as complex human beings who are framed by their particular context. For example, most incarcerated criminals have a history of witnessing or experiencing discrimination, or emotional and physical violence. Learning their stories helps Stevenson understand that crime does not occur in a vacuum. If more people were to stay close and pay attention instead of abandoning convicts to labels, they would be compelled to advocate for their rights.