The Book in Three Sentences

The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. Simply punishing the broken only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.

Just Mercy summary

This is my book summary of Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.

  • “Capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.”
  • The central question behind Stevenson's work is: how and why people are judged unfairly?
  • “[The United States] has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.”
  • One in three black male babies born this century is expected to be incarcerated.
  • We are the only country in the world that sentences children to life imprisonment without parole.
  • “Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.”
  • “The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”
  • “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
  • If a belief is contextual is it a belief worth holding? For example, let’s say you believe that people who commit terrible crimes, say a drunk driver who kills an innocent motorist in an accident, should be immediately condemned to death. What if that “drunk driver” is your son or daughter, your husband or wife? Suddenly, we start to see the complexity of the situation. “They are a good person who made a terrible mistake.” And if you pointed out this inconsistency, I would assume that many people would say, “Well of course that’s how I’m going to feel. It’s my son. What do you expect?” But that’s sort of the point: the only thing that changed in this circumstance is the distance between you and the person committing the crime. When we’re far enough away from the crime that the person becomes anonymous it is so easy to pass judgment. But when we know their name, their face, their history, the joy they have brought to our lives and the lives of others, the jobs they worked, and the movies they laughed at … then it becomes much more complicated. We see the good and the bad. But the good and the bad is always there, even if the person is just an anonymous criminal to us. So how strong in that belief really? Is it worth holding? Or is it better to apply the mercy we would show to mistaken loved ones to everyone else as well? (Related question: Are all beliefs contextual?)
  • Possible error in thinking about racism: do we have a tendency to view things as racial events rather than racial patterns? We see and acknowledge the well-known racial event or period (slavery, The Civil War, The Civil Rights Movement) but we overlook and ignore the fact that racism was largely unchanged and present for the decades between these events (Jim Crow, sharecropping, etc.). We see the event but forget about the prolonged pattern. (Unless you are a member of the oppressed group, of course. In which case you never forget.)
  • “The return of white supremacy and racial subordination came quickly after federal troops left Alabama in the 1870s.”
  • “Black men are eight times more likely to be killed by police than whites.”
  • “In debates about the death penalty, I had started arguing that we would never think it was humane to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault and abuse.”
  • By the mid-1990s DNA evidence revealed many wrongly convicted death row inmates. “In many states, the number of exonerations exceeded the number of executions.”
  • “Simply punishing the broken—walking away from them or hiding them from sight—only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”
  • “Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.”
  • “The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?”

Reading Suggestions

This is a list of authors, books, and concepts mentioned in Just Mercy, which might be useful for future reading.

  • The New Jim Crow book
  • Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon
  • Racial history and structural poverty materials from the Equal Justice Initiative

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

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