Bryan Stevenson: We need to talk about an injustice (3)
And I actually believe that the TED community needs to be more courageous. We need to find ways to embrace these challenges, these problems, the suffering. Because ultimately, our humanity depends on everyone's humanity. I've learned very simple things doing the work that I do. It's just taught me very simple things. I've come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done. I believe that for every person on the planet. I think if somebody tells a lie, they're not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that doesn't belong to them, they're not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you're not just a killer. And because of that there's this basic human dignity that must be respected by law. I also believe that in many parts of this country, and certainly in many parts of this globe, that the opposite of poverty is not wealth. I don't believe that. I actually think, in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.
And finally, I believe that, despite the fact that it is so dramatic and so beautiful and so inspiring and so stimulating, we will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won't be judged by our design, we won't be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated. Because it's in that nexus that we actually begin to understand truly profound things about who we are.
I sometimes get out of balance. I'll end with this story. I sometimes push too hard. I do get tired, as we all do. Sometimes those ideas get ahead of our thinking in ways that are important. And I've been representing these kids who have been sentenced to do these very harsh sentences. And I go to the jail and I see my client who's 13 and 14, and he's been certified to stand trial as an adult. I start thinking, well, how did that happen? How can a judge turn you into something that you're not? And the judge has certified him as an adult, but I see this kid.
And I was up too late one night and I starting thinking, well gosh, if the judge can turn you into something that you're not, the judge must have magic power. Yeah, Bryan, the judge has some magic power. You should ask for some of that. And because I was up too late, wasn't thinking real straight, I started working on a motion. And I had a client who was 14 years old, a young, poor black kid. And I started working on this motion, and the head of the motion was: "Motion to try my poor, 14-year-old black male client like a privileged, white 75-year-old corporate executive." (Applause)
And I put in my motion that there was prosecutorial misconduct and police misconduct and judicial misconduct. There was a crazy line in there about how there's no conduct in this county, it's all misconduct. And the next morning, I woke up and I thought, now did I dream that crazy motion, or did I actually write it? And to my horror, not only had I written it, but I had sent it to court.
A couple months went by, and I had just forgotten all about it. And I finally decided, oh gosh, I've got to go to the court and do this crazy case. And I got into my car and I was feeling really overwhelmed -- overwhelmed. And I got in my car and I went to this courthouse. And I was thinking, this is going to be so difficult, so painful. And I finally got out of the car and I started walking up to the courthouse.
And as I was walking up the steps of this courthouse, there was an older black man who was the janitor in this courthouse. When this man saw me, he came over to me and he said, "Who are you?" I said, "I'm a lawyer." He said, "You're a lawyer?" I said, "Yes, sir." And this man came over to me and he hugged me. And he whispered in my ear. He said, "I'm so proud of you." And I have to tell you, it was energizing. It connected deeply with something in me about identity, about the capacity of every person to contribute to a community, to a perspective that is hopeful.
Well I went into the courtroom. And as soon as I walked inside, the judge saw me coming in. He said, "Mr. Stevenson, did you write this crazy motion?" I said, "Yes, sir. I did." And we started arguing. And people started coming in because they were just outraged. I had written these crazy things. And police officers were coming in and assistant prosecutors and clerk workers. And before I knew it, the courtroom was filled with people angry that we were talking about race, that we were talking about poverty, that we were talking about inequality.
And out of the corner of my eye, I could see this janitor pacing back and forth. And he kept looking through the window, and he could hear all of this holler. He kept pacing back and forth. And finally, this older black man with this very worried look on his face came into the courtroom and sat down behind me, almost at counsel table. About 10 minutes later the judge said we would take a break. And during the break there was a deputy sheriff who was offended that the janitor had come into court. And this deputy jumped up and he ran over to this older black man. He said, "Jimmy, what are you doing in this courtroom?" And this older black man stood up and he looked at that deputy and he looked at me and he said, "I came into this courtroom to tell this young man, keep your eyes on the prize, hold on." 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.
Chris Anderson: So you heard and saw an obvious desire by this audience, this community, to help you on your way and to do something on this issue. Other than writing a check, what could we do?
BS: Well there are opportunities all around us. If you live in the state of California, for example, there's a referendum coming up this spring where actually there's going to be an effort to redirect some of the money we spend on the politics of punishment. For example, here in California we're going to spend one billion dollars on the death penalty in the next five years -- one billion dollars. And yet, 46 percent of all homicide cases don't result in arrest. 56 percent of all rape cases don't result. So there's an opportunity to change that. And this referendum would propose having those dollars go to law enforcement and safety. And I think that opportunity exists all around us.
CA: There's been this huge decline in crime in America over the last three decades. And part of the narrative of that is sometimes that it's about increased incarceration rates. What would you say to someone who believed that?
BS: Well actually the violent crime rate has remained relatively stable. The great increase in mass incarceration in this country wasn't really in violent crime categories. It was this misguided war on drugs. That's where the dramatic increases have come in our prison population. And we got carried away with the rhetoric of punishment. And so we have three strikes laws that put people in prison forever for stealing a bicycle, for low-level property crimes, rather than making them give those resources back to the people who they victimized. I believe we need to do more to help people who are victimized by crime, not do less. And I think our current punishment philosophy does nothing for no one. And I think that's the orientation that we have to change.
CA: Bryan, you've struck a massive chord here. You're an inspiring person. Thank you so much for coming to TED. Thank you.