Bryan A. Stevenson, flush from his victory in an historic juvenile justice case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, was the perfect keynote speaker for child advocates gathered at the Law Center for a major conference.
Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., and Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, closed the first day of the 9th Annual Zealous Advocacy Conference sponsored on May 20-21 by the Center for Children, Law & Policy at the Law Center.
Stevenson successfully argued before the high court that it is unconstitutional to impose a sentence of life without parole on juveniles convicted of non-homicidal crimes. Speaking at the Law Center, he was quick to share credit for the victory. “Much of what we won this week (May 17) is about what you people do,” he told the gathering. “You go into court to argue that kids are different, and that it’s wrong to throw away children.” He bemoaned the “epidemic of treating children like adults” and the resulting mass incarceration that has created an underclass of “untouchables” with no future. “There are lots and lots of challenges ahead” in the justice system, he said, starting with allocating more resources for the poor and addressing issues of racial disparity and mental health.
Most juveniles who are sentenced to life without parole probably would have been spared the harsh sentence if they had been adequately represented, Stevenson noted. In the current system, he said, it is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent. “These are broken people in our society,” he said, “but every person has dignity and should have their rights protected.” Stevenson said he is encouraged by recent efforts in some states to deal with the issue of mass incarceration, and he applauded Texas for ending sentences of life without parole for juveniles last year.
Stevenson said “hopelessness” is one of the greatest problems faced by his poor, young clients, and he noted how this despair can infect the advocates who work on behalf of these juveniles. “I’m one of those lawyers who believes the heart is relevant to the practice of law,” he said. “You have to have more than ideals. You have to have conviction and heart.”
“We do need to be hopeful, and that requires courage,” he said, recalling important words ingrained in him years ago by his grandmother. “No one, no one, no one is beyond redemption. And that is especially true of children,” he said.