Fighting Poverty with Passion
This month, I’m using my blog as a PSA opportunity rather than a recap of the previous weeks’ events. That’s not to say it hasn’t been busy, but a number of projects are in flux and will serve as more interesting fodder for the blogosphere come November.
Let’s talk books. Today marks the release of Just Mercy, a memoir by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initative. Unfortunately I haven’t read it yet (as it just hit the shelves) but from my understanding, the book is at once a humbling narrative of Stevenson’s life work as a legal advocate and a profound survey of the broken criminal justice system, shared through the stories of his clients—all of whom are victims of horrifying institutional injustices.
On Monday, I received an email from our Executive Director informing me that Stevenson references JJPL and Carol Kolinchak, who is legacy JJPL and continues to be special counsel on juvenile life-without-parole cases in Louisiana. The excerpt recounts the court hearing that ends in the release of a man who spent over four decades in Angola; he was the first person to be released under the Supreme Court’s ban on life sentences without parole for children. Who co-counseled the case with Stevenson? Carol! And she continues to be instrumental in the release of dozens of people who were tried, convicted, and incarcerated for life without parole in their teenage years for non-homicide crimes.
Here’s an excerpt from Just Mercy:
“As the judge spoke about Mr. Caston’s decades in prison, the courtroom, for the first time in my multiple trips there, became completely silent. The lawyers stopped conferring, the prosecutors awaiting other cases paid attention, and family members ceased their chatter. Even the handcuffed inmates awaiting their cases had stopped talking and were listening intently. The judge detailed Mr. Caston’s forty-five years at Angola for a non-homicide crime when he was sixteen. She noted that Caston had been sent to Angola in the 1960s. Then the judge pronounced a new sentence that meant Mr. Caston would immediately be released from prison.
I looked at Carol and smiled. Then the people in the silent courtroom did something I’d never seen before: They erupted in applause. The defense lawyers, prosecutors, family members, and deputy sheriffs applauded. Even the inmates applauded in their handcuffs.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Bryan Stevenson or Just Mercy, I highly suggest watching this interview last week with Jon Stewart or his TED talk (better yet, both). Interesting fact: his lecture holds the record for longest standing ovation of all TED talks. There’s a reason for that. He peels back the layers of a nightmare criminal justice system without making the listener feel defeated. Appalled, yes, but not hopeless. And I think that’s the most important message we can draw from his work—the system is not too big, it’s not too corrupt, and it’s not too lost to change. Oftentimes indifference is born because we believe the problems facing us are unconquerable. Stevenson wants us to know this can be done; the harms, prejudices, and wrongs that are so grossly rusted into the machinery of the system can be chipped away, slowly and with perseverance. In believing and in keeping at it, we can return dignity and freedom to the hundreds of thousands of people who languish in prison for crimes not their own, but ours.