Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Art for Justice grantee that provides legal representation to prisoners who might have been denied a fair trial, was recently featured in the New York Times Magazine. Stevenson gave a wide-ranging interview in which he touched on the First Step Act, the link between slavery and mass incarceration and America’s inability to face the dark side of its history.
The First Step Act is important, Stevenson argued, but does not go far enough in addressing the realities of mass incarceration.
“We’ve gone from 300,000 people in jails and prisons in the 1970s to 2.2 million people today. We have to radically reorient ourselves and start talking about rehabilitation, restoration and how we end crime. And if we do that, we’re going to come to very different choices than we’ve come to in this era of overincarceration, where the response to everything is punishment.”
Stevenson, who lives in Montgomery, Alabama, and spearheaded the creation of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice – dedicated to the victims of white supremacy and reckoning with our nation’s history of lynching – underscored just how far we still have to go to reconcile with our past.
“The great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude: It was the ideology of white supremacy, in which people persuaded themselves that black people aren’t fully human. When you look at the 13th Amendment, which talks about ending forced labor, it says nothing about ending this narrative of racial differences. Slavery didn’t end in 1865; it just evolved.”