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.