I recently purchased and read Just Mercy: A True Story of the Fight for Justice (Adapted for Young Readers) by attorney Bryan Stevenson. I wanted a quick, easy read I could enjoy, and the adult version had glowing reviews. I also decided to get the young readers edition, because I thought it might be a perfect nonfiction book for my freshmen to read for the justice unit I teach every year.
I ended up reading the book in three days, spending my lunch periods and every free minute to pick it up and read a chapter or two. This book reminded me that, “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” I haven’t taught the book yet, but when I do, I’m confident that my students will walk away from this unforgettable book with the same lessons.
Stevenson shares his stories of working as an attorney for the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) where he and his team defend those on death row, children doomed to extreme sentences, and the falsely accused. The reader quickly learns how poorly formulated laws can have terrible effects on our society.
Most stories made me angry but also thankful that people like Stevenson are called to this kind of work. For example, it was personally hard for me to read about the young teen, who after shooting and killing the man who brutally battered his mother, was sent to an adult prison where he was horrifically abused. Our prison system is a catastrophic failure, and Stevenson and his team are chipping away to make it a little less awful.
I remember very few books I had to read in high school. But I can’t imagine a book like this being easily forgotten by any student. Some quotes I had to reread include the following:
“In the United States, the number of women sent to prison increased 646 percent between 1980 and 2010.”
“Between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened in the United States every ten days.”
“Today, over 50 percent of prison and jail inmates in the United States have a diagnosed mental illness.”
Stevenson is an engaging and skilled writer. The book mostly tells the story of William McMillian, an uneducated African-American man who is wrongly convicted of murder and put on death row. The case is full of corruption and incompetence and hatred. But sometimes Stevenson pauses on William’s story to dedicate a chapter to another one of his clients who was also mistreated by our legal system. The book is full of statistics, legal history, and great vocabulary (I highlighted 196 words my students might need to learn).
Finally, the book will make you cry. Towards the end of the book, in a chapter entitled Broken, Stevenson tells a story from when he was around 10-years-old when he laughs at a boy at church who has a stutter (thinking the boy is joking). Stevenson’s mother witnesses the encounter, and she makes him hug the boy and tell him, “I love you.” This whole scene only takes up two pages of a book of over 250 pages. But you will likely have tears in your eyes when you finish reading it.
In the end, Stevenson calls us to be “stonecatchers.” When speaking at a church, he relayed the Bible story of the woman caught in adultery. Stevenson writes:
“Accusers retreated, and Jesus forgave. But today, our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused us to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion. I told the congregation that we can’t simply watch that happen. I told them we have to be stonecatchers.”
This book will inspire you to become a stonecatcher.