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Just Mercy

by Bryan Stevenson

Book Summary by Brian T. Murphy

As opposed to Michelle Alexander’s full assault on the system of mass incarceration (The New Jim Crow) with a thesis full of damning facts that support the creation of a racial undercaste, Stevenson shares a similar narrative but with a much more personal touch, detailing the stories of several death penalty cases on which he worked. The stories are often excruciating. Thousands imprisoned for life or on death row (particularly in the south) that went to jail under unjust circumstances, arrested and convicted by a system whose vast majority was white. He even details several teens who received life sentences as minors; in most cases these teens were victims of severe abuse and neglect. He argues the absurdity of sending victims to jail for life without the possibility of rehabilitation. It is painful to think of how many black men and children are in jail, some of whom are serving time for crimes they did not commit. Stevenson proves himself a humble warrior in this fight, as he built a compassionate, effective program from scratch. This program fought for the rights of people that are punished and cast aside by society under the all too simple guise of just punishment.

Major concepts:

Chapter 15 (Broken) brings the major theme of the book to the forefront, the concept of brokenness and just mercy. In short, we are all broken and if we can come to terms with this fact it will open us to to be more compassionate toward others who are broken as well. Chapter 15 is an incredibly powerful chapter and stands among the most poignant blocks of writing to date. Within is a simple formula to end many complex problems in our society – mass incarceration, racial discrimination, drug addiction – without the need for an exhaustive list of legislative and educational reforms. Stevenson’s humanity hits with raw power, and this world would be a beautiful and accommodating place if more people adopted and admitted to their inherent brokenness.

  • “I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learned things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.” p 290 (Broken)

  • The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. “The prison population has increased from 300,000 people 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly 6,000,000 people on probation or on parole. One in every 15 people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.” p 15

  • “Spending on jails and prisons by state and federal governments has risen from $6.9 billion in 1982 to nearly $80 billion today. Private prison builders and prison service companies have spent millions of dollars to persuade state and local governments to create new crimes, impose harsher sentences, and keep more people locked up so that they can earn profits. Private profit has corrupted incentives to improve public safety, reduce the costs of mass incarceration, and most significantly, promote rehabilitation of the incarcerated.” p 16


  • “ ‘You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance Bryan. You have to get close.’ ” Message from Bryan’s grandmother. p 14

  • “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” p 18

  • “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” p 18

Chapter 4. The Old Rugged Cross

  • Judicial elections are a terrible idea. Most judges get elected by being tough on crime, thus there is no room for mercy in sentencing. p 70

  • “One of the country’s least discussed postwar problems is how frequently combat veterans bring the traumas of war back with them and are incarcerated after returning to their communities. By the mid-1980s, nearly 20 percent of the people in jails and prisons in the United States served in the military. While the rate declined in the 1990s as the shadows cast by the Vietnam war began to recede, it has picked up again as a result of the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.” This is a testament to the fact that we do not care about our military. p 75

  • “I had started arguing that we would never think it was humane to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse. Yet we were comfortable killing people who kill, in part because we think we can do it in a manner that doesn’t implicate our own humanity, the way that raping or abusing someone would. I couldn’t stop thinking that we don’t spend much time contemplating the details of what killing someone actually involves.” p 91

Chapter 11. I’ll fly away

  • “In a landmark ruling, New York Times v. Sullivan changed the standard for defamation and libel by requiring plaintiffs to prove malice– that is, evidence of actual knowledge on the part of the publisher that a statement is false. The ruling marked a significant victory for freedom of the press…” p 209

Chapter 12. Mother, mother

  • “In 1996, Congress passed welfare reform legislation that gratuitously included a provision that authorized states to ban people with drug convictions from public benefits and welfare.” This was the Bill Clinton Administration. p 237

Chapter 14. Cruel and Unusual

  • “Between 1990 in 2005, a new prison opened in the United States every 10 days.” Stevenson goes on to detail how lobbyists and the prison industrial complex began to use imprisoning humans as the answer to everything, albeit immigration, drug addiction, or mental health. New crime categories were being created to increase the population. p 260

  • In arguing that children should not receive life sentences in prison because they are at developmental stages that are not in their control: We emphasized the incongruity of not allowing children to smoke, drink, vote, drive without restrictions, give blood, buy guns, and a range of other behaviors because of their well-recognized lack of maturity and judgment while simultaneously treating some of the most at risk, neglected, and impaired children exactly the same as full-grown adults in the criminal justice system.” p 270

Chapter 15. Broken

  • “We’re supposed to sentence people fairly after fully considering the life circumstances, but instead we exploit the inability of the poor to get the legal assistance they need–all so we can kill them with less resistance.” p 287

  • “There was no excuse for him to have shot someone, but it didn’t make sense to kill him. I began to get angry. Why do we want to kill all the broken people? What is wrong with us, that we think a thing like that can be right?” p 288

  • “We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.” p 289

  • “We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.” p 289

  •  “We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.” P 289

  • “I thought of the people who would cheer his death and see it as some kind of victory. I realized they were broken people, too, even if they would never admit it. So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and weak–not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken. I thought of the victims of violent crime and the survivors of murdered loved ones, and how we pressured them to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute. I thought of the many ways we’ve legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we’ve allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others. We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible.” p 290

  • “I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learned things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.” p 290

  • “I didn’t deserve reconciliation or love in that moment, but that’s how mercy works. The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the underserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent– strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.” p 294



  • “I told the congregation that Walter’s case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, do we deserve to kill?”

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