Review: “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

The decay of the economy is leading to more and more people being shut out from the traditional labor market of capitalism. This section of society is targeted with particular viciousness by the state apparatus—often referred to as the “Criminal Justice System”—a misnomer if ever there was one. American capitalism has created the most incarcerated nation in the world. More people, as a percentage of society, are imprisoned here than in China.

As the prison apparatus continues to grind down millions of people’s lives, a section of those who work in this system are becoming radicalized. One such person is Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is a lawyer who has spent the last several decades running a legal aid non-profit called the “Equal Justice Initiative” (EJI). It specializes in advocating the abolition of the death penalty, and in cases involving those sentenced to death who are likely to be innocent, children who were sentenced to life in prison, and those who are guilty of crimes, but who they believe should be given leniency due to mental disability or other extenuating circumstances.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center there are currently 3,035 people on death row, 1,284 of whom are white, 1,250 black, 386 Latino, and 81 described as “other.” According to the same source, a combined 44.4% of those who have been executed since 1976 are black, Latino, or “other” (than white). So far this year there have been 22 executions in the United States: 9 whites, 8 blacks, and 5 Latinos. This in a country where 63% of the population is white, 13% black, and 17% Latino. Multiple studies have shown that the number of actual crimes committed is relatively even across racial lines, but that members of ethnic minorities are much more likely to be arrested and convicted of crimes.

Perhaps the most famous case that Stevenson worked on was that of Walter McMillian, a black small-business owner who was framed by law enforcement for the murder of a young white woman. McMillian had angered many white people in his hometown of Monroeville, Alabama by having an affair with a white woman. Walter had dozens of witnesses saying that he was home on the day of the murder, but he made an awfully good scapegoat, and the racist police department wasn’t going to let the opportunity slip.

This is not some far-flung historical footnote—the year was 1988. McMillian was sentenced by an all-white jury to life imprisonment, but the judge overruled them and instead imposed a death sentence. It wasn’t until 1993 that the EJI was able to prove that the main witness had been badgered by police into false testimony, and McMillian was finally released. Several years later he was diagnosed with early onset dementia, which may have been triggered by his trauma while on death row, and he passed away on September 11, 2013.

Capitalism depends on the exploitation of human beings, and dividing the working class with racism is one of the ways in which it facilitates this. It cannot provide an adequate standard of living for billions around the world who are nominally “free,” so we shouldn’t be shocked that it can’t provide a humane existence to those behind bars. Any attempts to fundamentally transform this system must eventually come up against the unscalable walls imposed on all such endeavors by the forces of the market.

There is a huge “prison-industrial complex” in which many corporations make massive profits through the construction of prisons, food, security, and other services, and as Stevenson correctly points out, we mustn’t forget about convict-leasing. The first section of the 13th amendment does not abolish slavery outright, but instead says that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Slavery is still legally permissible so long as the person to be enslaved has already been convicted of a crime supposedly “warranting” such a punishment—a loophole that has been a boon to corporations who have benefited from legal forced convict labor since just after the Civil War.

The biggest causes of crime are poverty and mental illness. The first is a “question of bread,” as Lenin would say—if there is not enough to go around, people will fight over and steal it to survive. As for mental illness, are there not ways to deal with this other than  locking people away in prisons or institutions where they often get worse, not better? Once freed from the confines of profitability, scientific innovations could help us ease the suffering of the mentally ill, integrate them back into society, and prevent or ameliorate its occurrence in the first place. There are many people who don’t even get the basic care they need and deserve, due to a lack of funds and the gutting of public programs.

American capitalism was born with slavery in its foundations and institutional racism is a necessary byproduct of this. Even though the Civil War ended slavery, it by no means did away with racism. The IMT believes that to end racism, discrimination, exploitation, and oppression, all the resources that humanity has at its disposal should be democratically used and rationally planned to provide for social needs, rather than for profit.

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