Compiled By The Milwaukee Courier Staff
Speaking in front of a capacity crowd at Milwaukee Area Technical College, Bryan Stevenson, human rights lawyer and 1985 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Prize” winner told several personal, true stories of encounters he has had with prisoners on death row and the many injustices he has seen within the criminal justice system.
The first time he met a death row prisoner, Stevenson was “just a young law student” sent to tell someone they were not at risk of execution in the next year. Stevenson said his image of the man was shaped by the chains he was in. The prisoner said “Thank you.
You’re the first person I’ve seen that’s not a death row prisoner or a guard. I haven’t seen my wife or my kids because I thought I would have an execution date.
Now I can see my wife and kids.”
Many experiences like his first visit with a prisoner on death row led to the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization Stevenson founded, committed to reforms, fair and just treatment to the imprisoned and condemned.
The work by Stevenson and his staff at EJI has won reversals, relief or release for over 115 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row. Stevenson is also the author of the 2014 New York Times bestselling book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” which focuses on stories of death row prisoners, and how the cases he took on have transformed his life, work and research.
He is widely acclaimed as a national expert on criminal justice reform, ant-poverty and anti-discrimination policies, and is seriously being talked about as a Supreme Court nominee, due to a vacancy left in the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
He urged the audience at MATC to “change the world, to create a different America.” To do so, he laid out a four-point strategy to spur long-term change: Be proximate, or close, to the places where injustice occurs in the world; change the narratives around us, by understanding the policy behind the narratives and the narrative of racial indifference; protecting hope, and be willing to do uncomfortable and inconvenient things. During his hour-long speech, Stevenson also called for a more honest conversation about race, the legacy of slavery and racial injustice in this country and how it impacts us today.
Stevenson referenced a 2013 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that says, “One in every three black males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in their lifetime.”
“I resist the idea that we cannot do better,” Stevenson said.
He did praise Wisconsin for being a state that does not use capital punishment, but also acknowledged that we have much more work to do, which received an agreeable applause from the crowd.
“We can cut the prison population in half within eight years, stop excessive punishments and decrease the number of people living below the Federal Poverty Level,” he added.
One of those in the crowd that was moved by the Stevenson’s talk was Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm.
“Bryan Stevenson’s speech resonated with me because I started my legal career like he did– representing prisoners,” said Chisholm.
“It was important for a future prosecutor to experience the humanity of the incarcerated and understand how serious the decision to confine someone is. I agreed with all his points, particularly when he talks about “proximity”, the need to get close to the people most affected by crime. My proximity is community prosecutors and victim advocates working directly in the neighborhoods across Milwaukee County.”
Stevenson’s speech was followed by a short panel discussion with Stevenson moderated by Marcus White, VP civic engagement at Greater Milwaukee Foundation, and featuring panelist, Bryan Massingale, a Marquette University professor, and Tannette Johnson-Elie, journalist and professor at UW-Parkside.