As I finish reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, the Supreme Court of the United States hears the appeal of the conviction on corruption charges of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell. In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson describes his life’s work attempting to obtain justice for inmates on death row convicted of crimes based on questionable and even false evidence, for children as young as 12 facing life sentences, for those with no meaningful legal representation due to overworked and/or unengaged public defenders, and for others who face racial and economic discrimination in their attempts for justice. How ironic that as I finish this disturbing and compelling book, a middle-aged white man has gone from conviction by a jury of his fellow Virginians, and affirmed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, to the Supreme Court in just 19 months. And, this middle-aged white man has never served a day of his sentence in prison.
The ultimate responsibility of the Supreme Court is “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW,” the words written above the main entrance to the Supreme Court Building. Yet, as you read Just Mercy and learn of the petitions to the Supreme Court that were denied a hearing resulting in wrongly convicted people executed at the hands of the state, then see a Governor convicted of corruption have his opportunity to obtain equal justice before the highest Court in the nation, it reinforces that justice is not for all no matter what we may say in our Pledge of Allegiance.
“EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW” has a long way to go. And, although I shake my head when Governor McDonnell gets such a quick review at the Supreme Court while so many others are deprived of justice, I know there are many efforts to reform and fix our criminal justice system. There are people like Bryan Stevenson and his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative, law schools around the country with legal clinics that assist the poor and unrepresented, initiatives to end financial bail for pretrial detention where minorities and the poor disproportionately remain incarcerated pending trial, and the Sentencing Reform Acts pending in the Judiciary Committees of the House and Senate.
To dispense “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW,” we do not need just criminal justice reform – we also need to create and provide opportunity for all. There are many efforts underway in this regard including the Bard Prison Initiative that provides a college education to those in prison, and the U.S. Department of Labor reentry programs that provide training programs to offenders in prison so that after serving their sentences individuals have a genuine opportunity to reenter the workforce. The bipartisan group Opportunity Nation has a Presidential Plan for the next President that includes creating opportunity for children, and giving children that make a bad choice a second chance. Criminal Justice reform and creating equal opportunity go hand-in-hand. It is a bipartisan issue that even the billionaire conservative Charles Koch publicly states needs to be addressed.
I am hopeful these efforts will continue and that opportunity, rehabilitation and equal justice under the law will become reality.