READ THE TRANSCRIPT

BILL MOYERS: Welcome. We lost a great journalist this week. Anthony Lewis was a longtime reporter and columnist at The New York Times. I knew him during my years in Washington when he made his reputation as our foremost interpreter of the Supreme Court and the impact of its decisions on civil rights and liberties. As one legal scholar noted, Lewis had “an incredible talent in making the law not only intelligible but also in making it compelling.”

This was Tony Lewis’ masterpiece – “Gideon’s Trumpet” – an account of the Supreme Court’s Gideon v. Wainwright ruling in 1963 that established the constitutional right of criminal defendants to an attorney, even if they had no money to pay for one. The book has never been out of print, its’ story the subject of this CBS reports documentary:

MARTIN AGRONSKY ON CBS REPORTS: His name is Clarence Earl Gideon. He argued there could be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has. He argued there should not be one kind of justice for the rich, another for the poor. Gideon blew one note on his trumpet. He blew it over and over: a man cannot get a fair trial without a lawyer. And because he would not retreat one wit from that position, this man, Clarence Gideon, has wrought a profound change in the course of American Jurisprudence.

BILL MOYERS: Gideon was a drifter with a criminal record, charged with breaking and entering and robbing a pool hall in Florida. Denied representation, he defended himself and was sentenced to five years in state prison. From his cell, he exercised his right to petition the Supreme Court for a fair hearing. When the justices ruled In Gideon’s favor, hundreds of prisoners who also had been denied their legal rights were freed or given new trials and our current system of public defenders was born.

But fifty years later that system is floundering. When Gideon v. Wainwright was decided, fewer than half of all defendants were poor. Now, over 80 percent are. Of the 2.2 million inmates in the United States, more than sixty percent are members of racial and ethnic minorities, and the law puts a disproportionate number of them on death row.

Bryan Stevenson found his calling defending the poor and least powerful among us. Straight from Harvard Law School he went south, eventually to create the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, the state with the highest per capita rate of death sentences in the country. He and his colleagues have battled excessive and unfair sentencing, helped free prisoners on death row, challenged the abuse of the incarcerated and mentally ill, and stood up on behalf of minors, children, prosecuted as adults.

Welcome back…

BRYAN STEVENSON: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: That Supreme Court decision, Gideon, 50 years ago said, you have the right to an attorney in a criminal case, even if you cannot afford it. What was the impact?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, it was radical. It was revolutionary. For decades the poor had really been very vulnerable in our criminal court system and frequently faced very severe punishments alone. What Gideon did was basically say that our constitution requires that we treat people equally when their life and when their liberty is at risk. And it changed the way we thought about counsel for the poor in this country. At least in theory, at least in doctrine.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I read that there are approximately 15,000 court-appointed defenders representing millions of criminal suspects, defendants, and inmates all over the country and paid for by the taxpayers. But I also read that a poor person has a much greater chance of being incarcerated now than when the Supreme Court handed down that decision. Why is that?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I think it's because we never really took the right seriously. You look at some of the Court's major decisions in the '50s and '60s, Brown v. Board of Education, would not have actually changed education for racial minorities in this country, had not thousands of people marched and fought and made that decision real.

Gideon was the kind of decision that didn't have advocates, didn't have people out there insisting that enforcement take place right away. It was really left to the discretion of states and some states took up the challenge and many states didn't. And so today we have only 24 states that have statewide public defender systems.

We have lots of states that have done very little to make the right to counsel for poor people effective. And so 50 years after Gideon, sadly, we still have a system that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent. Wealth is still the determinative factor.

BILL MOYERS: And how have events since then affected our inability or unwillingness to carry Gideon out?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Everything has been aggravated by mass incarceration. As you point out in the 1960s, there were 200,000 people in jails, in prisons. The number of people who were poor facing confinement was a very small percentage, or half. Today, we have 2.2 million people in jails and prisons, nearly five million people on probation and parole.

And so our appetite for punishment, for incarceration, for condemnation has made the demand, the need for lawyers much greater than we've been able to comply with, we've been able to meet. And so I think quite sadly, the situation for poor people in the criminal justice system is much, much worse today than it was in 1963, largely as a function of numbers.

BILL MOYERS: What's been the impact of the war on drugs?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, the war on drugs has been probably the biggest factor in driving the prison population up. You've now basically imprisoned, hundreds of thousands of people for nonviolent, simple possession of crimes like marijuana, that result in incarceration. So you've thrown hundreds of thousands of people into the system, and of course this is these are the cases where you actually need a very smart, informed attorney.

BILL MOYERS: How so?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, because you'll be told that if you plead guilty, you can go home. You're not told that there will be these collateral consequences. You might lose your right to vote, you'll be barred from public housing, you won't ever be eligible for food stamps.

You'll be building toward this situation where if you get arrested again, you'll be facing mandatory sentences like 20 years in prison, or life in prison. And all of that stuff has to come from an advocate who explains the consequences. Yet what we've done with the system is create a situation where the lawyers themselves have an incentive to plead everybody out. About 94 percent of all cases in this country are resolved by a plea.

BILL MOYERS: Do judges have an incentive too?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Oh absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: To get a guilty plea instead of a ten-week trial?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Absolutely. I mean, again, by throwing hundreds of thousands of people into the system by, you know, allowing the politics of fear and anger to throw hundreds of thousands of people into our courts, court judges, trial judges, are overwhelmed.

They don't have the space, they don't have the resources, they don't have the facilities to process in a fair and reasonable way all the cases that are coming in. So they absolutely want cases settled. They don't want cases going to trial. And a lot of them find lawyers that will cooperate in processing cases in just that way.

BILL MOYERS: Anthony Lewis later confessed that he had been naïve, his word, to believe that our political system would vindicate the rights established in that decision. And the political system, as you indicate, has failed to deliver. What is the chief reason that the political system has turned its back on Gideon?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I think it's largely a function of our never valuing the plight of the poor, our indifference to the poor in so many areas. And obviously, when you add to the poor the stigma of crime, of criminality, of criminal, that further disadvantages them. And so I think, like what we've seen in so many areas, the poor have always been marginalized.

But I think the real problem with Gideon is in part a function of what the courts themselves have done. If the courts had insisted on compliance with Gideon, in the way that we did with some of our anti-discrimination cases in other areas, the political system would have to respond to that. But our courts didn't do that. We've actually tolerated unbelievably poor lawyering.

Twenty years after Gideon, the court in case called Strickland v. Washington was asked to decide what are the reasonable, minimal standards for effective lawyering. And they created the standard very, very low. And so today, even in death penalty cases, we see lawyers that are drunk in court, asleep during the trial, who are disbarred and suspended at percentages way higher than what we see in other kinds of cases. And because the court has tolerated this kind of lawyering, the political system has had no constitutional compunction, no institutional imperative, to invest in the kind of system that we really need.

BILL MOYERS: But isn't that, Bryan, like the country going to war, and the Pentagon's charged to defend this, but the Pentagon won't commit its army? Won't fight the war--

BRYAN STEVENSON: It very much is--

BILL MOYERS: The courts are not fighting for it--

BRYAN STEVENSON: That exactly right. And it's one of the reasons why the court, I think, has to change its perspective on these issues. I mean, you can look at death penalty cases, which really are the cases where you expect the greatest investment in the right to counsel--

BILL MOYERS: Your life and death is at stake--

BRYAN STEVENSON: Life and death is at stake. And what the data tell us is that we have tolerated extremely bad lawyering in these cases. The average disbarment rate in most states is about one percent of lawyers. Washington State, one percent of lawyers end up disbarred or suspended. But the Seattle Post-Intelligencer looked at all the 84 cases that resulted in death sentences and found that 20 percent of those cases involved lawyers who were later suspended or disbarred.

Dallas did, the paper, did the same thing in Texas, looked at 461 cases, 25 percent of the lawyers suspended or got punishment. And you see these kinds of problems system-wide, statewide. And yet, the court, in reviewing these cases has frequently said, "Yes, the lawyer was drunk, yes, the lawyer was asleep, yes, the lawyer hated the client, yes, the lawyer presented no evidence. But because you haven't proved to us that the defendant was prejudiced by that, we're going to say that's not a constitutional problem."

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean, that they haven't proved that the defendant is prejudice by this?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Instead of saying that the right to counsel insists on a competitive, effective lawyer, in all cases, and particularly in death penalty cases, we created a standard that said, "Yes, the lawyer should be there. But the lawyer, and the lawyer should be reasonable. But we're also going to require before we grant any relief to a person on death row, that they get a new lawyer who will prove to us that the bad lawyer's conduct actually was consequential."

And so this prejudice standard has become a defining feature of how we regulate lawyering and the right to counsel in this country. And of course, you have to get another lawyer to kind of show that. And we don't create a right to counsel for that other lawyer. I mean, for the 2.2 million people in jails and prisons, hundreds of thousands of whom are claiming that they are wrongly convicted, there is no right to counsel. They can't actually even get into court to expose the problems that we're talking about.

BILL MOYERS: Have you personally seen in the courtroom, defendants affected adversely by incompetent counsel?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Oh my Lord, yes. I mean, too frequently. I've seen Judy Haney's case, the lawyer was actually so intoxicated, the judge stopped the trial in the middle of the trial and made the lawyer spend a day in jail, becoming sober, then picked the trial back up. The client was sentenced to death. And on appeal, the state appellate court said, "No constitutional problem with that." I've seen dozens of people go before the judge after waiting for months to get a lawyer appointed. Say, "Your Honor, just, I'll plead guilty. Just please let me go home." And so they never actually get the lawyer they're entitled to because the no lawyer has been appointed. We see it too frequently.

It's in so many of these cases, no investigation, no mitigation, we've got death penalty cases where the lawyer basically tells the jury that he hates his client. Calvin Burdine, was openly gay, the lawyer basically told the jury, I don't care whether you sentence him to death or not. He was a criminal defense attorney, representing a man who was openly gay, about whom he expressed hostility and contempt.

BILL MOYERS: I don't know if you saw this remarkable article recently in The Atlantic magazine by Andrew Cohen--

BRYAN STEVENSON: Uh-huh.

BILL MOYERS: --who wrote that 50 years after Gideon, the situation for poor defendants is bad everywhere in America, but particularly in the South. What is it about the South?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I think we didn't, we were resistant to a lot of the Supreme Court decisions that were coming out during that era. And I think Gideon was no exception. And so there just wasn't a willingness to invest. It's a poor region. And obviously providing effective assistance to incarcerated, accused people, has a resource component.

And getting resources organized is difficult everywhere, but particularly difficult there. And it's a leadership issue. You know, we have not been very good at embracing some of these constitutional mandates, there's been resistance and a culture of resistance. State of Alabama where I practice has no public defender system.

BILL MOYERS: None?

BRYAN STEVENSON: None.

BRYAN STEVENSON: The defendant gets an appointed lawyer by the judge and in many places the lawyer is appointed based on prior conduct. And so if you make the judge happy, don't take cases to trial, do the right thing, you get appointed. If you make the judge mad, take a case to trial, you won't get that appointment.

We have statutory caps on compensation. Half the people on death row in Alabama were represented by lawyers who by statute could not be paid more than $1,000 for their out of court time. And that kind of system is necessarily going to produce some very, very bad outcomes. And you see that all over the country. You know, 70 percent of the people in Florida, misdemeanants, don't have lawyers when they go before the judge.

BILL MOYERS: How does the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching play out in justice in the South?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I think we have really never confronted this problem of disfavored people in our society. I don't think we've actually done a very good job of embracing people who have been victims of our excess, our abuse, our bias, our discrimination. We've allowed these narratives that emerge, where we feel like it's okay to abuse certain kinds of people.

And I think that does have a lot to do with what we've seen over the last 200 years. I mean, you know, slavery really wasn't well understood in this country. I don't believe we actually did a very good job of appreciating that in America, we had a slave system that was actually a caste system. Where we enslaved people because we didn't think they were as good as the rest of us. And during that era, we redefined people who were formerly enslaved as criminals. We used convict leasing and other systems and lynching to basically create this narrative of criminality. And once you designate somebody as a criminal, you can do anything you want to do with them. And the Jim Crow era, the civil rights era was similarly, I think, compromised by a proper narrative.

We didn't finish the civil rights movement with the commitment to a process of truth and reconciliation, which is what other countries have recognized you have to do. After decades of human rights abuses, you can't just stop with the law and expect things will be okay. We didn't do that. We didn't spend time talking about the trauma, all of that humiliation, all of that degradation that African Americans experienced. All of that abuse that white people in this country experienced by being told that they were actually better than other people because of the color of their skin, we didn't deal with that.

And because we didn't deal with it, we then created, in my judgment, a new legacy, which is evident in our system of mass incarceration. We throw people away, we disfavor them. We're now seeing it in the immigration context. Where tens of thousands of people who are undocumented are being shelved into detention facilities, because that's what we do with our unwanted.

And we've got to understand that narrative, if we're going to actually get at effective remedies for dealing with things like the right to counsel, a fair treatment of the accused.

BILL MOYERS: Even people of empathy must have a hard time imagining what it's like to be without any money, absolutely poor, standing before the court alone. From your experience, what is it like?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I think it's terrifying. You're having to make decisions with no understanding of what the consequence of those decisions are going to be. You tend to get tunnel vision. You're looking for the first exit. Anything that somebody says to you will get you out, you take with, again, without appreciating what those collateral consequences.

It is what we mean by injustice. It is what we mean by unfairness. You know, to be in a fight, which is what our system is structured to facilitate. It's an adversarial system, with a state with all of its resources, with all of its might, with all of its power, is going come after you and try to take away your liberty. Sometimes try to take away your life. And it is a fight. And to be in that fight unarmed, unaided, uninformed, exposed, hated, disfavored, is pretty overwhelming

BILL MOYERS: How does this weigh on the public defenders? You know a lot of them. What's it like to be on the front lines of a system like this?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Yeah. I think it can be very, very dispiriting. I, you know, I have the privilege of teaching and I have these wonderful students who are so committed and so energetic and they go and they work in a defender office where to be effective, they need a caseload of about 100, maybe 150. And very quickly, they're given a caseload of 500. Some places--

BILL MOYERS: 500 when--

BRYAN STEVENSON: Yes, the A.B.A., the American Bar Association says, the limit really should be around 100 or 150. Yet in many of these defender programs, defender offices lawyers are handling cases, 500 cases a year.

BILL MOYERS: Wow.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Some places 700 cases a year. And you can make any great lawyer ineffective if you give them more than they can manage. And it's dispiriting. And what a lot of them do is they leave. And of course when they leave, they create a vacuum, which results in poor people not having advocates that care about them, not having lawyers who are prepared to fight for them. It's one of the great tragedies of, again, what we've done. And you see it at the top end, you got people literally dying for legal assistance on death row in this country, and you see it at the very bottom, where misdemeanants never see lawyers before they forfeit very basic freedoms and liberties because they don't know any different.

BILL MOYERS: Give me a profile of a public defender.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Sure. So a profile in many urban offices today will go to their office, they'll have a stack of files that will have maybe 30, 40 cases that are active that day, they've never met those clients, they'll go to the courthouse, there'll be a room of dozens of people sitting up there. Their cases will be called in about an hour. And they'll have about that much time to meet 20 or 30 clients, figure out what the case is about and then go before the judge on the trial, on essentially the adjudication.

BILL MOYERS: All in one day?

BRYAN STEVENSON: All in one day. And I've been in courtrooms where the appointed lawyers don't even go and meet the clients. The judge will call out a name and the client will stand up and the lawyer will roam around and then they'll go up and three minutes later, they'll plead guilty. And tragically, that happens far too often and in too many places.

BILL MOYERS: Didn't you and your colleagues do research showing that children of color tend to be sentenced more harshly?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Oh, no question. And I think one of the tragic aspects of what we've seen over the last 40 years is what it's done to children. Again, at the time of Gideon, there were virtually no children in the adult criminal justice system. Today, there are a quarter of a million of kids in the adult criminal justice system, in jails and prisons--

BILL MOYERS: Kids being under--

BRYAN STEVENSON: Under the age of 18, 17 and younger, some as young as eight and nine years of age. We eliminated the minimum age for trying children as adults. We subjected children to execution, which we only banned in 2005, to death in prison through life imprisonment without parole. Nearly 3,000 children in this country have been sentenced to die in prison. And yes, there are huge racial disparities about 74 percent of the youngest kids serving life without parole are African American or Latino.

And again, all of this creates this cultural problem that I'm very concerned about. What I hate about what we're doing is not only is it destroying communities where you have high percentages of young men of color in jail and prison, it's also changing the attitudes of these kids. These young kids, 13 and 14 tell me that they don't believe they're going to be free or alive by the time they're 21, because that's what they see happening in their communities. And that is a real tragedy that I think speaks to a lot of very serious problems that we have to confront.

BILL MOYERS: You won a landmark decision before the Supreme Court last year, what was that about?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Miller versus Alabama was a case where we challenged the constitutionality of life without parole sentences for children. Evan Miller was 14 years of age, the second case, Kuntrell Jackson also involved a 14 year old. There are hundreds of children, 13, 14, 15, 16 who have been sentenced to die in prison. And most of them got these sentences in mandatory sentencing proceedings. And what we asked the court to do was to ban mandatory life without parole sentences for children. And the court did that in a five-four ruling.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think was the convincing or compelling turning point in the argument?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I think it was really recognizing that children are different. That we can't be indifferent to the status of children. We protect children in virtually every other area of law. We even punish people more harshly if they victimize a child. We don't let them drink, we don't let them smoke, we recognize their limitations.

But in the criminal justice system, over the last 30 years, we've just abandoned any consciousness about what it means to be a child. And so it was important for us to explain to them the developmental differences between children and adults, but to also explain to them that to say to any child of 13, that you're fit only to die in prison, is cruel. And it's also unusual. We're the only country in the world that imposes that kind of sentence on a child that young.

BILL MOYERS: "Every person," you said, "is more than the worst thing they've ever done." And you said even the court has recognized this sort of reality.

BRYAN STEVENSON: I think that we too frequently define these legal rulings through the lens of a crime. And we think the crime is what we're actually condemning and sentencing. And there's no question that crimes can be brutal and horrific and painful. But we give justice to people. And we're not actually condemning crimes, we're condemning people.

You know, I think most people listening to this could never imagine that their 12- or 13- or 14-year-old child could to anything that would justify putting that child in prison until they die. We just can't imagine it. And we can imagine our kids doing some really bad things.

BILL MOYERS: Right.

BRYAN STEVENSON: And what happens of course is that when you don't see the child as your child, which happens to a lot of racial minorities, and undocumented children and native children in these court systems, we don't take that attitude.

You know, there are a lot of us that are talking about a pipeline, a school-to-jail pipeline, the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline, because even in school systems now, we're arresting children six and seven and eight year old kids, we put them in handcuffs, we treat them like criminals. And it's not something that any responsible parent could ever imagine being legitimate as applied to their children.

And we just have to have this notion that all children are children. I mean, that's basically my argument to the court, it's been my argument to policy makers. All children are children. You can't say, "That's not really a child because he's black or because he's brown or because he's Latino, because he's had some problems, because he's disabled, because he's angry, because he's homeless." You can't say that that makes him not a child. And it's the thrust of that argument really that we're trying to present to courts and policy makers.

BILL MOYERS: What are the consequences of what you've described? Of what's happening?

BRYAN STEVENSON: It's been pretty horrific. I have been in jails, where I've met young clients who I've had to hold while they cried hysterically after explaining to me that they had been abused by adults in that facility. You're ten times more likely to be the victim of a sexual assault if you're a child in an adult jail or prison.

You're much more likely to commit suicide. And when I work with these kids, I see a tremendous amount of pain and abuse. I've had clients who've had the names of people carved into their skin who have abused and raped them. And when you're dealing with that kind of pain and anguish, when you hold a kid after he's cried for an hour because you're trying to, he's trying to make sense of what's happening to him, you leave the facility and you say, "Who is responsible for this?"

And then when you realize that we are all responsible for it, it does make this issue a very compelling issue. I think it makes the need to say something an overwhelming need and I think the obligation to do something a priority. And that's part of the reason why we've been pushing these issues.

BILL MOYERS: You gave a TED talk last year—

BRYAN STEVENSON AT TED: I've come to TED because I believe that many of you understand that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That we cannot be full evolved human beings until we care about human rights and basic dignity. That all of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone. That our visions of technology and design and entertainment and creativity have to be married with visions of humanity, compassion and justice. And more than anything, for those of you who share that, I've simply come to tell you to keep your eyes on the prize, hold on. Thank you very much. (Watch Stevenson's entire speech »)

BILL MOYERS: You got one of the longest, if not the longest and most intense standing ovation of anybody who had appeared before TED. And a number of people called up and pledged I think over a million dollars to your nonprofit down there in Alabama. And yet public opinion seems more strongly and sternly than ever to resist paying for, to defend the poor. How do we close that contradiction?

BRYAN STEVENSON: I think we have to raise the question of justice. We have to raise the question of fairness. We can't analyze these issues without appreciating that if we're not willing to fund an adequate system, we're going to be unjust. We're going to be unfair. We‘re going to throw people away in ways that are not consistent with our values. And I think we have to raise that.

I do think we have to educate too. I mean, the reality is, is that we could reduce the prison population by 50 percent in a very short period of time, not increase threats to public safety, bring down the cost of managing the criminal justice system, and increase the resources for fair and adequate defense. But it's going to take a lot of leadership, which we haven't seen in a long time.

BILL MOYERS: Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, as you know introduced legislation just last week called the Gideon's Promise Act of 2013. It would give the justice department the ability to sue states and counties that fail to uphold the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. It also promises money to states to improve indigent defense. Do you expect anything to come out of this?

BRYAN STEVENSON: It's a first step, but I actually think until we appreciate that we are in a crisis, that what we're doing is just fundamentally unjust, that we're throwing hundreds of thousands of people away in ways that cannot be reconciled with a country committed to fairness and see it as a crisis in many of the same ways that we saw the civil rights conflicts of the '60s, as a crisis moment and what we were doing to the desperately poor in the '20s and '30s as a crisis moment we're not going to have the will to actually move forward.

I think that Congress can play a role. But I think the court plays the critical role here. If the court starts saying, "Look, we are not going to tolerate these kinds of trials where the lawyers are unprepared and unskilled and if we challenge some of what we've seen in some of these places, I think we can turn this issue around." But it's going to take that kind of intervention.

BILL MOYERS: What are a few things you think we could do to turn this around?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I think we should take advantage of the fact that we can't afford to keep putting all these people in jails and prisons and immediately demand political reforms. Let's stop this misguided war on drugs, let's stop incarcerating people at these high rates for a simple drug possession. Let's stop putting people back in prison for simple technical violations. That would bring down the prison population, which would be a first step. I think we should demand of our courts a commitment to Gideon. I think we should renew that commitment. And stop insisting that the poor person go find a volunteer lawyer to show the court that their bad lawyer actually did something consequential.

And we talk about this as a presumed prejudice standard. If the court would presume prejudice if the lawyer's drunk, intoxicated, didn't investigate didn't meet the client until right before, just presume prejudice there, that would radicalize our commitment to the public defense system. And finally, I think we created an atmosphere where everybody gets revved up around a particular crime. And these bad crimes create bad laws that then become bad policy. And we need to do a little bit of that soul searching that allows us to be more honest about what justice requires. The people who need the protection of the law, the people who need our commitment to the rule of law, are not the powerful people, not the rich and the famous.

It's the poor people. It's the incarcerated people. It's the accused people that actually need a commitment to the rule of law. And so we have to understand that ultimately, that's where we're going to be judged. We're not going to be judged by how well we're doing for the rich and famous. We're going to be judged by how well we do with the Clarence Gideon’s of this world, which are frankly everywhere these days.

BILL MOYERS: Bryan Stevenson, thank you very much for being here and thank you very much for the work you do.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Thank you.

Bryan Stevenson on Evening the Odds in American Justice

March 29, 2013

Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright established the constitutional right of criminal defendants to legal representation, even if they can’t afford it. The Court ruled there shouldn’t be one kind of justice for the rich and another for the poor, but the scales of the American legal system still tilt heavily in favor of the white and wealthy. Attorney and legal scholar Bryan Stevenson joins Bill to expose the system’s failures at the crossroads of race, class and justice — especially when it comes to the quality of legal representation provided to those for whom it’s literally a matter of life or death.

“Fifty years after Gideon, sadly, we still have a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” Stevenson tells Bill. “If the courts had insisted on compliance with Gideon, in the way that we did with some of our anti-discrimination cases in other areas, the political system would have to respond to that. But our courts didn’t do that; we’ve actually tolerated unbelievably poor lawyering.”

Interview Producer: Gail Ablow. Editor: Andrew M.I. Lee. Associate Producer: Robert Booth.

  • submit to reddit

BillMoyers.com encourages conversation and debate around issues, events and ideas related to content on Moyers & Company and the BillMoyers.com website.

  • The editorial staff reserves the right to take down comments it deems inappropriate.
  • Profanity, personal attacks, hate speech, off-topic posts, advertisements and spam will not be tolerated.
  • Do not intentionally make false or misleading statements, impersonate someone else, break the law, or condone or encourage unlawful activity.

If your comments consistently or intentionally make this community a less civil and enjoyable place to be, you and your comments will be excluded from it.

We need your help with this. If you feel a post is not in line with the comment policy, please flag it so that we can take a look. Comments and questions about our policy are welcome. Please send an email to info@moyersmedia.com

Find out more about BillMoyers.com's privacy policy and terms of service.

  • Stephen Tardrew

    This is what insanity looks like. Welcome to the land of the free and home of the brave. Civilisation in crises. Names carved into the flesh of sexually abused minors? My God what an appaling validation of rampant injustice. That this can occur is just frightening. Words fail to describe acceptance of such cruelty and injustice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Judith-Logue/100001544348015 Judith Logue
  • http://www.facebook.com/HarperGreerMangini Harper Greer Mangini

    We know that our justice system is neither fair nor just. We know minorities and the poor are woefully under represented and targeted fir incarceration, yet somehow while Weiss have been sleeping, the for profit prison system was allowed to take hold and worsen the plight of the under represented. As a consequence, children of very tender ages are being targeted in what is called the “school to prison” program. We have to stand up to injustice by accepting that our system of justice is broken, and we must accept our responsibility in allowing that to happen. Our time, our voices and our interest in this issue is the least we should commit to on behalf of the victims. I’m thankful for attorneys like this young man in Alabama who ring the alarm and speak for those who cannot speak and/or defend themselves. Thank you, Bill Moyers, for being one of the very, very few journalists who are willing to bring us true, meaningful news and insights.

  • cg

    Great piece but as a former prisoner, I have to say that more accurately, it is not only the poor, but also working people and large parts of the middle class in this recession that are hugely disadvantaged in our criminal justice system. The inequities and plea deals that Bryan Stevenson describes as the experience of the poor are the common experience of working class and many in the middle class. Bail, Restitution, incarceration and lawyers fees to go to trial are *so * outrageously expensive that plea deals are the only real options for them also. Indeed, it is only the rich and very rich that really have a chance. Secondly, while men make up most of those incarcerated, rates of female incarceration are increasing faster than men and have for some time. We are looking at a future of many, many more women locked up in this country. It’s important for speakers like Mr. Stevenson to contemplate this when commenting about who is locked up in our country.

  • Eve

    Thank you for mentioning the role of for-profit prisons in this whole mess. To me that’s the key – as long as there is a profit incentive for injustice, none of this will change.

  • susanpub

    Oh, Bill, the program this week is making me sick at my stomach. This country is a failure & a shame when it comes to the justice system – & that name for it is a sad joke – and that may just make it a failure, period. But I don’t think the majority of Americans would ever allow themselves to believe that there is no justice for all – or even for many. America can do no wrong… my country right or wrong… America is the best in all ways… love it or leave it (then who will fix its problems?). Sad, sad delusions. And these problems will never be addressed & we will never fix them until we acknowledge them. I don’t see things changing.

    I used to have a friend who would say it’s “just us” not justice.

    Yes, the pledge of allegiance is a travesty used to brainwash our citizens from an early age & I never say it. My allegiance is not to a piece of cloth no matter how symbolic it is. My allegiance would be to the high ideals this country should be built on. Living in this world is such a downer.

  • akexpat

    I have always known, in a theoretical sense, that justice is for sale in this country. But it really hit home about 6 years ago when my own son was arrested on a drug offense. Because we had the means to bail him out, he came to his first court appearance in a suit and tie. Other defendants who had not been bailed out were sitting in a row in their prison jumpsuits, shackled together; literally all of them had dark skin. Because we were able to hire a first-rate defense attorney, and to send our son to rehab, he was able to avoid jail time and after rehab spent 6 months in a half-way house. None of this would have been possible for a poor person. Certainly, a public defender was available. But his time was stetched thin and he could not have provided the representation that got the results we saw for our son. Also, because we were able to give him a lot of family support after his release from the halfway house, he was able to complete his probation without returning to jail. This is another rarity.

  • Michael A. Hense

    i echo what cg said… it’s not just the poor… the disregard for rule of law in NY Courts is almost to the point of becoming systemic… Ethical judges and lawyers are in the minority, rules of the court are violated, the laws of the state and of the US are violated by self serving lawless elements of judiciary on a daily basis… and nobody in the government seems to care… just the opposite, these people keep getting nominated by the self serving elite to more prestigious positions, ie: Jonathan Lippman nominated to SJI while Complaints to DOJ ignored… Go Figure…

  • Anonymous

    This is the key to everything else. If the average citizen had access to good legal representation, we would have healthcare, decent homes, schools, environmental protections, etc. That’s how they took it all from us!

  • Paul Calhoun

    The same people who are greeted home with the cliches of “fighting for our freedom” come from the same classes of people who often lose their freedom in our bloated, unjust legal minefield.

  • Anonymous

    If you must rely on a court-appointed attorney, then you are relying on the luck of the draw, it’s a total crap-shoot. If you can manage to scrape together enough cash to go lawyer shopping, well you might as well burn that cash, at least you’ll get some heat from it. I sound cynical, I know. I probably shouldn’t be. Justice, like most everything else, is simply not affordable and is out of reach for most people.

  • Plum Disgusted with America

    This man, Bryan Stevenson, is a saint. What he sees and deals with is a travesty, a heartbreak that must be overwhelmingly sad, awful and infuriating, and yet he keeps on keeping on. I don’t know how he keeps from smashing things. What a rotten country this has become.

  • Anonymous

    The big thing for me all about this is the way the the ‘news’ media covers crime; that’s why we have all of the nasty laws that Stevenson was talking about later on in the interview. Due to the nature of the 24 hour news cycle that we have now, and the way that the news media has become corrupted, everybody who watches the news believes that we all are being deluged in crime when in actuality we aren’t being deluged in crime, and it’s going down continent-wide (I say continent-wide because the same problems are also happening in Canada as well due to societal influences from ‘down south’ as we Canadians like to call the United States.)

    Until we change the way we look at crime reporting in the media and how it’s become so sensationalistic and inflammatory, we will continue to have these problems in North American society no matter what we do to resolve them. We need media and media company ownership reform as much as we need the other things mentioned by Stevenson.

  • Anonymous

    Is it me, or does anybody remember the scene in the movie RoboCop where the executive played by Ronny Cox lists a ton of things that OCP has invested in that weren’t considered profitable, one of them being prisons? I never thought that what was said in the movie would come true now, but it has, sadly.