Bryan Stevenson savors victory in Supreme Court ruling on juvenile life sentences

June 25, 2012

Bryan A. Stevenson — Harvard law and government grad, MacArthur “genius” and native son of a segregated Delmarva — has not let the murder of a family member at the hands of teenagers keep him from his life’s work: representing juvenile offenders whose violent acts have landed them behind bars, often for life. In the mid-1980s, Stevenson established the Equal Justice Institute in Montgomery, Ala., and from that perch the 52-year-old has shepherded landmark cases that have transformed how the country’s criminal justice system deals with violent youths. On Monday, a divided Supreme Court handed Stevenson his latest victory: By a 5 to 4 margin, the justices declared unconstitutional any mandatory penalty that essentially dooms a juvenile offender to a life sentence. Stevenson’s clients in the two cases decided by the court were each 14 years old when they were involved in crimes that resulted in homicides. Stevenson spoke with the Style section about the cases, his roots and the passion that fuels his career.

Why did you get involved in these types of cases? Why do you feel so strongly?

Stevenson: I started representing children on death row 20 years ago, and I was struck by how desperately they wanted and needed mentoring, parenting, guidance. They were in every sense of the word “kids,” and that surprised me initially. . . . What I saw was that not only were they vulnerable and disabled and exposed in ways that adult clients weren’t, but they were also responsive in ways that adult clients weren’t. . . . The second thing was just seeing how exposed kids are in the adult system, how victimized, how brutalized.

Have you ever come face to face with a victim of one of your clients?

Tragically, I know more about victimization than I wish I knew. My grandfather was murdered when I was 16 by juveniles, four kids in a low-income project in south Philadelphia. Members of my immediate family have dealt with very serious crimes. It’s not a lack of awareness. We spend a lot of time with victims of violent crime. . . . I think we should be doing something radically better by people who are victimized by violent crime. But what we’ve done in the last 30 years is promised them revenge, mostly; we promised them blood and executions and extreme punishments.


Attorney Bryan Stevenson poses for a portrait Thursday Nov. 17, 2005 in Montgomery, Ala. (Rob Carr/AP)

We do very poorly in providing them with counseling and support and recovery or the promise of a new society where there’s going to be less crime because we’re doing something constructive to help people who are at risk or hopeless or marginalized.

I also think that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. And if we don’t commit in a complete way to justice for everybody, we risk perpetuating the dynamics that have been so injurious to American progress. And I do believe we should spend a lot more time thinking about how we treat people who are disadvantaged and disfavored in evaluating our progress, our decency, our character, because, ultimately, that’s how we’re going to be judged.

If a juvenile has committed the most heinous of crimes and the jury has adjudicated that individual guilty, why is it offensive to the Constitution for that juvenile to be subjected to a mandatory life without parole?

Children are different than adults. We recognize that children need extra protection. Their maturity, their judgment, their development doesn’t permit us to treat them like adults. That’s the reason why we don’t let even the smartest kids smoke or drink or vote or drive cars before they’re eligible.

We protect children under the law except in the criminal justice system, and in the last 30 years, we have essentially dropped the protections for kids, put them in the adult criminal justice system, where I think many of them have been really unfairly sentenced and condemned. . . . We do it mostly to kids who are poor and kids of color, and that makes this sentence “unusual.”

I believe that to say to any child that you’re only fit to die in prison is “cruel.” It’s true that some of these crimes are very disturbing, but it’s also true that the lives that many of these children have lived are also disturbing. They’re in many ways some of the most vulnerable kids in society, and we owe them more than to simply throw them away.

How do you determine whether an adult who committed a heinous crime as a juvenile has truly changed and matured and become someone who can be trusted within a community at large?

I think the one way you don’t do it is to make that judgment when they are weeks or months away from the offense itself, and that’s what life without parole insists that we do. . . . You don’t say to kids at 14 that you can’t go to college because you’re too unmotivated, too incomplete, too unprepared. . . . We say the opposite. And I think in the criminal justice system making those kind of permanent, unalterable judgments is cruel and unusual.

With your degrees from Harvard, you could have gone anywhere and done anything. What called you to Alabama?

My parents lived in a poor rural community on the Eastern Shore, and schools were still segregated. And I remember when lawyers came into our community to open up the public schools to black kids. And while I didn’t think about being a lawyer then, it became clear to me that the legacy of injustice, of segregation, of bias, of unfairness that had constrained the opportunities of my parents and many people in my community required resistance.

The opportunities that were given to me I want to give to other people who are disadvantaged and disfavored and marginalized. And in my generation, I think the place where those needs are most compelling and most dramatic is in the criminal justice system. One out of three young black men is in jail or in prison. I go into communities where half of the young men of color are under criminal justice control, where you see states like Alabama that have permanently disenfranchised over a third of the black male population. I see real threats to the kinds of freedom and opportunities that I experienced as a result of the work that was done before me, and I feel a need to respond to that.

Is Alabama now home?

That’s the toughest question you’ve asked me. [Laughter] Yes, it is home. . . . It’s challenging. We haven’t confronted the legacy of segregation, of terrorism, which defined this region from the end of Reconstruction until World War II. We haven’t really confronted the legacy of slavery, and the absence of a process of truth and reconciliation sometimes is really, really, really unnerving.

It’s just debilitating to see the ways in which we find new ways to insult and offend. Whether it’s people talking romantically about the good ’ole days of the 1920s and ’30s, or celebrating Confederate memorial day as a holiday — which it is in Alabama — or refusing to take out the segregation language in the state constitution. . . . It can be a challenge, but my legacy at least for the people who came before me is you don’t run from challenges because that’s more comfortable and convenient. Somebody has to stand when other people are sitting. Somebody has to speak when other people are quiet. And if people hadn’t taken on these issues in some of the more difficult places, I don’t think I’d be sitting here today.

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