Just Mercy

I have a law project called the Equal Justice Initiative, and we’re trying to help people on death row. We’re trying to stop the death penalty, actually. We’re trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice. We’re trying to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don’t get the legal help they need. We’re trying to help people who are mentally ill. We’re trying to stop them from putting children in adult jails and prisons. We’re trying to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities. We want to see more diversity in decision-making roles in the justice system. We’re trying to educate people about racial history and the need for racial justice. We’re trying to confront abuse of power by police and prosecutors—

Bryan Stevenson in his book, Just Mercy (pg. 293)

Open Letter We All Need to Consider

This is a letter from Maria Lloyd to Judge Marvin Aspen who sentenced her father to 15 life sentences for her father’s first nonviolent offense.  This matter, matters like them, and all the “legal” issues related therein, are becoming matters of faith for me.  I’d love to know what you think.  I’d love, simply, to have you thinking of this as I am.

Dear Judge Marvin E. Aspen:

It took me some time to address you because I didn’t know you were the source of my anger until recently. In case you care to know who I am, I’m Maria Lloyd- the daughter of Mario Lloyd, the non-violent, first-time offender from Chicago. You sentenced him to 15 life sentences without parole on May 11, 1989. He has been incarcerated since I was the age of two. In addition to sending my father to prison, you also sentenced my grandmother, my aunt, and my uncle.  You basically incarcerated my entire family.

I’m not one to make excuses for anyone’s poor decisions, including those of my own family. They broke the law, so they deserved punishment. I get it.  I also get the point you were proving in punishing them: Drug trafficking is not tolerated in the state of Illinois. It’s quite obvious you were taking a very personal stand against the War on Drugs. Well, as you can imagine, I have too, but I’m sure our views differ.

Even if one argues that my family deserved to go to prison for the distribution of drugs, does my father deserve to be incarcerated for life? Do you really think he deserves to die in prison? My four siblings and I have literally faced hell because of our father’s incarceration. I truly believe my eldest brother, who is now deceased, wouldn’t have diedat the hands of violence if my father wasn’t incarcerated.

You have no idea how much embarrassment, confusion, and heartache a child faces when handed an Emergency Contact Form requesting contact information for mom and dad. For years, I’d write my father’s name and ask my mom if I could write the prison’s information on the lines requesting his address and phone number. “Daddy-Daughter” socials were the worst. Instead of enjoying the festivities, I would stay home in shame because of my father’s incarceration. I’m still haunted by those experiences to this very day, and I have yet to recover emotionally.

I can’t believe the word “Honorable” is placed before your name and title. What’s honorable about your work? Nothing. Because of you, I haven’t recited the Pledge of Allegiance in years. Liberty and justice aren’t for “all”, it’s reserved exclusively for the wealthy which are generally of European descent.

I know my dad deserved to be punished for his crimes- I accept that.  But, for a non-violent, first time offense, 15 life sentences is far too harsh.  By giving a life sentence to my father, you also sentenced me to a lifetime of misery that comes from losing the man I’ve loved since birth.   My father has spent 23 years of my life in prison.  Now, I pray that men like you will never be allowed to ruin a family again. To be honest, I don’t wish hardship upon you but I definitely don’t wish you well.

Sincerely,

Maria Lloyd

I found the letter here.

Blessed & Troubled

I was blessed and troubled to hear Michelle Alexander speak at Northwestern University Wednesday night.  My seminary, in collaboration with Northwestern, brought her to talk and she spoke about her book, The New Jim Crow.  She gave a similar talk as the one in this video.  I’m not sure if her talk the other night will be available yet.

Professor Alexander, last Wednesday, discussed her own early suspicions of calling what she’s investigated a caste system, before being personally changed after she, as a civil rights attorney, encountered story after story of young men being swept into the criminal justice system.  She dedicated Wednesday’s lecture to Martin Luther King, Jr, and she told us to press for a social movement against the legal system that is so historically and frequently assigning young men (most of whom are men of color) into a new racial undercaste system called incarceration.

I’ve mentioned her book on the blog before.  It’s probably the most memorable and distressing book I read last year.  It’s one of the reasons why I’m intentionally reading less this year–in order for me to digest harder readings like Alexander’s.  If you haven’t gotten The New Jim Crow, consider buying it or checking it out of your local library.  It’ll give you much to think through.  And it may change you.

Perhaps this video can appeal to your best self and whet your interest for the heavier work which is her book.

Former Governor Sentenced & The New Jim Crow

People are talking about our former governor’s sentencing, and I keep thinking about three things.  I think about his family and how difficult this must be for them.  I think about how this is an example, glowing or not, of our criminal justice system at work.  I think about the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

Professor Alexander’s book is thorough and full and dishearteningly descriptive of mass incarceration.  I learned more than I’ll tell you in that book.  I read it a couple months ago and became an immediate fan of Michelle Alexander.  I didn’t plan to write a review of her book; in fact, I wouldn’t call this post a review but an expression of gratitude.  I couldn’t arrange a blog interview with her unfortunately.  But the fingers gripping the bars on that book cover keep looking at me.  I keep thinking of what she wrote.

Professor Alexander discusses the War on Drugs primarily.  She debunks the notion of the War, and she explains, in almost loving ways, how profit fuels the drug trade in our country and how the federal government rewards local and state political systems with money when they introduce people into the criminal justice system.  If you’re interested in learning about the history of the drug trade, where police swat teams developed, and the rights you have when and if the police pull you over, those will be covered.  There is a pervasive discussion of race in the volume.  Men–and what’s happening to us–is discussed carefully and respectfully.  She ties the excessive arrest rates in communities of color with policies from the 80s and threads the effects of those policies to the huge spikes in our prison population these days.

Professor Alexander does very little opining in the book.  Instead, she tells stories.  There are facts and facts and facts, but I couldn’t walk through the book with my highlighter.  Even though I learned a lot, her book felt more like a kitchen table than it did a legal seminar.  And I mean that in the most complimentary way imaginable.  She places legal detail on an edible plate for her readers, and you can almost feel her hand on your shoulder while you swallow the truth when it gets nasty.

If you haven’t picked up this book and read it, you need to.  I realize that I say that about many books.  I realize that I interview authors on this blog and that their books have my highest recommendations.  I tell you what I’m reading and sometimes why I’m reading it, along with what I’m learning from those readings.  I get it.  And you know that I like reading almost as much as I do eating because I need both to survive.  And again, The New Jim Crow is one of those books that should be required reading.  You should get it because it will teach you about the prison system.  It will provide you a historical context for discrimination and help you speak well about justice and injustice and crime and restoration.  It will give you a hunger, and perhaps a vision, for justice.

Be clear: the book is dismal because Professor Alexander is too good at what she does.  She paints portraits and tells stories in ways that leave you sad and angry and frustrated.  But you won’t close your nightly reading without feeling a little more grateful for people who pursue justice in the wide ways that people do.  Even people who work and serve the cause of justice in ways that may not intersect with the criminal justice system.

You won’t look at a news story or listen to a conversation about jail and prison and justice in the same way.  You’ll ask different questions.  You’ll wonder why so many people who look like you continue to go overlooked when a former governor gets convicted and sentenced.  You’ll wonder who will tell those stories.  You’ll question who will raise their faces and those of their families.  And then you’ll see those fingers gripping those bars on that glossy black book jacket.  And you’ll smile and you just may write a post or an email to somebody and mention a scholar and activist and teacher named Michelle Alexander.

Visit Michelle Alexander’s website here to learn about her book.