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Just Mercy

A Story of Justice and Redemption

By Bryan Stevenson
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Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy (2014) is a walk through the American criminal justice system of the 1980s. These blinks explain how a system that is supposed to safeguard the rights of the nation’s citizens became an unjust tool to mistreat and abuse the most vulnerable members of society through mass incarceration and excessive sentencing.

Key idea 1 of 8

Since the 1980s, America’s criminal justice system has been marked by excessive punishment and mass incarceration.

Criminal justice in America has long been a subject of public interest, prompting countless movies and TV series that detail the lives as well as work of lawyers, judges and even prisoners. But when you peel back the glossy Hollywood facade there’s a stark reality with nothing entertaining about it.

Why’s that?

Well, since the 1980s, the American criminal justice system has been one of excessive punishment. That’s because in the 1980s the country’s courts started doling out extreme sentences for even the most minor offenses. This was especially true if the person on trial had any kind of criminal record. The result was that even committing a petty crime could land you in jail for life.

So, while in the early years of the decade, 41,000 people in America were incarcerated at a given time for drug-related offenses, today that number stands at 500,000. This fact is especially shocking since drugs use exploded in the 1980s. It’s clear that a fundamental change took place in both the sentences which were doled out and public opinion about what constituted fair punishment.

For instance, in the 1980s the author met a woman serving a long prison sentence. Her crime?

Writing five bad checks, each for less than $150, to buy Christmas presents for her kids.

But extreme punishments bred another extreme: mass incarceration. It’s pretty simple: the more people you jail for small crimes, the more crowded prisons become. And this is why America is now facing a nationwide crisis of mass incarceration.

For example, America’s prison population has risen from 300,000 in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. That’s not even counting the additional six million who are currently on probation or parole. Statistically speaking, that means that one out of every 15 people born in 2001 will be in prison sometime during his life.

So where did all of these new criminals come from?

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