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opinion | HKS PolicyCast

A message of inequality in the criminal justice system still resonates

Bryan Stevenson.Nina Subin

The Boston Globe presents the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast, a weekly podcast on public policy, politics, and global issues. HKS PolicyCast is hosted by Matt Cadwallader.

Bryan Stevenson has spent his career working to address issues of racial and wealth inequality in the US criminal justice system. As an attorney and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, he has defended juveniles, death row inmates, and others who don’t have the means to mount a strong legal defense.

Perhaps that’s why Archbishop Desmond Tutu once described him as “America’s young Nelson Mandela.”

When we initially asked Stevenson to come on the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast, it was in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. Now, more than a year later, issues of racial and wealth inequality in the criminal justice system have only grown more urgent, and his message still resonates.


“One-in-three black male babies born in the 21st century is expected to go to jail or prison,” says Stevenson, “That wasn’t true in the 20th century. That wasn’t true in the 19th century. It’s true today and I think a just society ought to be screaming about that.”

While Stevenson makes the case that the racial divide in our inmate population is deeply rooted in our failure to reconcile the effects of slavery and Jim Crow, he also stresses that it is further exacerbated by wealth inequality.

“I am persuaded that the opposite of poverty in this country is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice,” says Stevenson. “Our criminal justice system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”

In the full interview, which you can download on iTunes or listen to up above, Stevenson discusses:

• 2:11 — How mass incarceration is a “function of our failure to talk honestly about the legacy of racial inequality.”


• 5:00 — How the legacy of racial inequality impacts the system through a “presumption of guilt and dangerousness that black and brown people are born with in this country.”

• 8:04 — Why the problems are national problems, even if the legacy is more apparent in the South.

• 9:09 — The critical role of empathy and compassion in discussions of criminal justice.

• 10:50 — The work of the Equal Justice Initiative in “developing a more truthful reckoning with the challenges that we face in this country around justice.”

• 11:52 — The policy changes that “could reduce the prison population in this country by 50 percent.”

• 13:35 — How the disadvantage of being poor can be decoupled from the advantage of wealth in the criminal justice system.