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.


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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1176 words.)

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