Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bryan Stevenson: People are Better Than the Worst Thing They've Done

When Bryan Stevenson finished his talk here at TED 2012, I didn't think people were ever going to sit down.  The thunderous applause rolled on and on.  Powerful just doesn't begin to describe the response he evoked.

Stevenson is a public interest lawyer.  He spends most of his time in jails.  And he says that if you have a brush with the America justice system, it's better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent. 

There were lots of disturbing statistics in his talk, including facts that the Americans in this highly educated audience didn't know. 
  • In 1972, there were 300,000 people in jail in the US.  Today, there are 2.3M, with a further 7M on probation and parole.
  • One third of the the black men between the ages of 18 and 30 are in jail, on probation, or on parole.  That percentage rises to 60% in big cities.
  • America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world; with 5% of world population, they account for 25% of the world's incarcerated.
  • Three-strike laws mean that people can face life imprisonment for a minor crime like stealing a bicycle.
  • If you're been to jail in the US, you lose the right to vote for the rest of your life.  
  • The US is one of the few countries that still have the death penalty.  [I looked up on Wikipedia the number of people executed in 2010, broken out by country and it went like this: China: 2000+, Iran: 252+, North Korea: 60+, Yemen: 53+, USA: 46] 
 But it wasn't all statistics.  Stevenson lamented how many young people were tried as adults, and subject to life incarceration.  One night his frustration that a poor black 14-year-old boy was slated to be tried as an adult led him to write a brief arguing that if the boy was to be tried as an adult, he should be tried as a wealthy, privileged, 70-year-old white male. 

Stevenson said that people in America had to talk about the relationships between race and justice.  South Africa had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid, but the US has never such a discussion since the end of slavery.   He lamented the death penalty that fell disproportionately on black people; a German likened it to a situation where Germans had a death penalty which fell disproportionately on Jews.  Germans could never tolerate this; why could Americans?

Stevenson's talk was the one most frequently discussed at all the breaks.  On the final day, Chris Anderson told the audience that Stevenson needed $1.5M to continue the next phase of the Equal Justice Initiative.  Given that the TED community had been so moved by Stevenson's talk, Chris exhorted TEDsters to contribute the $1.5M needed.  Five people started by contributing $100,000 each and Chris went on to get others to donate $10,000 and $1,000 each.  Within ten minutes, $1.12M had been raised.   Chris has been working for years to build TEDsters into a commmunity which will work to change the world.  There are some very generous pocketbooks in the room, and a lot of power where someone is able to move them.

The talk has just been posted here

No comments: