This month until May 1, RCLL is facilitating discussion and programs on the topic of equity in our criminal justice and prison systems by reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and providing free copies of the title to our community members. We are providing these programs through grant funds from the Book to Action program, which is part of the California Library Association, supported in whole or in part by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered in California by the State Librarian. Book to Action offered three themes: equity, sustainability and health and we thought equity best fit with our role of enabling free and open access to the law.
About Just Mercy
Just Mercy follows a selection of Bryan Stevenson’s clients that were on death row in Alabama. Through the work of Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, some were able to be released. Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989, a 501c(3), to provide legal aid to the most vulnerable and in need-“those that had been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced or abused in state jails and prisons.” Stevenson’s books covers topics of wrongful conviction, prison reform, and racial injustice.
About Incarceration in the US and Riverside County
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world with more than 2 million people incarcerated at a given time. Of those incarcerated, people of color make up 67% of the prison population. Riverside County’s Probation office recently had a live symposium where they stated that there were 11,000 adults on probation and 1,023 youth on probation. Riverside County has a population of 2.471 million as of 2019.
About Equitable Legal Representation
Equitable representation and equitable treatment in legal proceedings are protected under the fifth and sixth amendments of the U.S. Constitution but there is a disparity in equity present in the U.S. court system from the federal to state level Part of the disparity is due to income- most people lack resources needed in investigating and trying a case. According to the California Bar Association’s California Justice Gap Study of 2019,85% of Californians received no or inadequate legal help for their problems. While there are legal aid organizations available to Californians the report showed that only 30% of their legal problems were fully served. Legal aids are a crucial factor in giving people equitable access to law, but the statistics show that people are underserved. The report also found that 61% of attorneys leave legal aid organizations due to the financial pressure of a low salary. The combination of lack of funds to obtain legal aid for those with legal problems and the lack of funds to pay attorneys a decent wage at legal aid organizations creates a gap in equitable justice.
Call to Action
What do we hope to do with reading Just Mercy as a community? We hope to open dialogues about the U.S. court and prison system as a whole and in Riverside County. We hope to educate the community about criminal justice reform and spur a call to action to increase our community’s awareness of the dire need for policy changes addressing racial inequities in the criminal justice system and more expansive legal aid help. And as the county’s public law library, we will continue to offer free and open access to the law through our online database, digital library, print collection, and legal research programming to the community.