Bryan Stevenson, Professor of Clinical Law at NYU and prominent American human rights lawyer, has some startling numbers to talk about.
"In 1972 there were 300,000 people in gaols and prisons in America. Today there are 2.3 million," says Professor Stevenson who is Executive Director of the pro-bono law firm Equal Justice Initiative.
The US now has the world's highest rate of incarceration. Six million people are on probation and parole. One third of black men aged between 18 and 30 are in jail, prison or on probation and parole.
"America is a place that, in my judgement, has been very disrupted by this phenomenon of mass incarceration. Our country is a radically different place today than it was 40 years ago," says Professor Stevenson.
While the number of those incarcerated has risen rapidly, the collateral effects have rippled through communities with devastating consequences. In many American jurisdictions, a criminal conviction means permanent loss of the right to vote. In Professor Stevenson's home state of Alabama, this has left 34% of the black male population disenfranchised. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 allowed states to deny benefits to people with drug convictions, including access to public housing, public medical care and food stamps.
"I believe in my lifetime – in the last 15 years – we've created a new caste of person in America, these people who are our untouchables, who cannot be accessed by the public benefits system. And there is this real disconnect when you look at how a great nation could engage in policies that simply create so much misery, so much suffering."
Visiting Melbourne to teach in the Melbourne Law Masters program, Professor Stevenson had a warning for those who filled the theatre to hear the powerful public lecture that capped off his week in Australia: this phenomenon of extreme punishment is spreading.
Associate Professor John Tobin, who invited Bryan Stevenson to Melbourne to raise the profile of public interest and human rights lawyering, agrees with the US advocate's prognosis.
"Professor Stevenson's challenge to create justice remains relevant to all Australians in a context where Indigenous Australians remain over-represented within the criminal justice system, where cuts to legal aid threaten the capacity to enjoy access to justice and where an emphasis on law and order risks the creation of policies that mimic features of the American justice system," said Associate Professor Tobin.
He hopes that both students and the broader community will be inspired by the insights and experiences of Professor Stevenson, who has spent nearly 30 years representing juvenile offenders and death row inmates in the US.
Professor Stevenson says that he was a reluctant law student. "I couldn't relate to any of it," says the Harvard graduate. A month spent with a human rights organisation as part of his law course changed his mind. The young student was asked to visit a prisoner on death row. The encounter had a profound effect: "This proximity, this encounter, this experience, did something to radicalise my interest in the law."
He encourages those in the legal profession to work more closely with disadvantaged groups and to challenge injustice – students through clinical legal education and lawyers through pro bono work.
"If you get close to people, if you get close to situations, you understand things that you cannot understand from a distance." "That's why I believe that lawyers should do pro bono work and do work that requires them to get close to human rights issues and problems, even if that's not their speciality. Because it does something to enhance our understanding of what a just society requires."
Banner image: Professor Bryan Stevenson
Photographer: Joe Armao