"How can a judge turn a child into an adult?" That’s a question lawyer Bryan Stevenson has spent years asking. Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit group providing legal representation to communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment.
Stevenson was invited to speak at TED2012, an annual conference showcasing big thinkers and doers throughout the world. He spent his 20 minutes discussing the power of identity, the dire need to reduce inequalities (including disproportionate minority contact), the injustice of juvenile life without parole sentences and mass incarceration. In his own words:
Here’s an excerpt from the TED Blog:
In the middle of a case where a judge ruled that a 14-year-old was fit to stand trial as an adult, Stevenson wondered, “How can a judge turn a child into an adult? The judge must have magic powers.” So, late at night and very tired, he worked on a motion to ask that his 14-year-old poor black male client be tried as a wealthy privileged 70-year-old white male. He wrote a searing critique and went to bed. Woke up and realized: He’d hit Send.
Months later, he went to court, wondering what the judge would say. On the way there he met a janitor, who found out he was a lawyer. The janitor hugged him and said he was proud of him. Then Stevenson went into court, and the judge was furious. Inside the court, people were angry. “Angry that we were talking about race, and poverty, and inequality.”
The janitor had come in and sat behind him, and at recess a deputy demanded to know what a janitor was doing there. The janitor replied, “I came into this courtroom to tell this young man, ‘Keep your eyes on the prize, and hold on.’”
Today, Stevenson wants to tell us, “All of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone,” and we can not be fully evolved human beings until we care about justice for all and are truly willing to confront our difficult past.
According to the TED organizers, Stevenson’s talk "inspired one of the longest and loudest standing ovations in TED’s history." His talk was so powerful that audience members contributed $1.12 million to his campaign to "end excessive sentencing of children and stop the practice of putting kids in adult jails and prisons."
Stevenson is arguing a case on that exact issue before the Supreme Court next month. Stay tuned for updates!
Liz Wu is a Digital Accounts Manager at Prichard Communications, where she oversees digital outreach for Reclaiming Futures and edits Reclaiming Futures Every Day. Before joining the Prichard team, Liz established the West Coast communications presence for the New America Foundation, where she managed all media relations, event planning and social media outreach for their 6 domestic policy programs. Liz received a B.A. in both Peace and Conflict Studies and German from the University of California at Berkeley. She tweets from @LizSF.