Child Watch® Column:
Leading the March towards Criminal Justice

Release Date: February 5, 2016

Marian Wright Edelman

Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. . . . I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

--Bryan Stevenson, Author of Just Mercy and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative

Bryan Stevenson’s inspiring and best-selling book Just Mercy shares some of the fruits of his lifelong fight to push our nation closer to true justice. In January our nation took two more steps forward in the ongoing struggle to treat children like children and ensure a fairer justice system for all, especially for our poor and those of color.

In 2012 Bryan Stevenson won the landmark United States Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama banning mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for children 17-years-old and younger. Until then the United States was the only country in the world that routinely condemned children convicted of crimes as young as 13 and 14 to die in prison. After that ruling most states that had sentenced youths to mandatory life sentences gave them the opportunity to argue for reduced sentences or apply for parole. Seven did not: Alabama, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Pennsylvania. Three of these, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Michigan, accounted for more than 1,100 of the 1,200-1,500 inmates still imprisoned for crimes committed as children. A January 25 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana made clear that the Miller decision must be applied retroactively in every state. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the decision, “The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition — that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

One of Bryan Stevenson’s searing stories in Just Mercy is about a child sentenced to life in prison without parole. Ian Manuel pled guilty to armed robbery and attempted murder for a crime he committed with two older boys when he was thirteen. He was incarcerated at Apalachee Correctional Institution in Florida, an adult prison, and sent to solitary confinement: “Solitary confinement at Apalachee means living in a concrete box the size of a walk-in closet . . . If you shout or scream, your time in solitary is extended; if you hurt yourself by refusing to eat or mutilating your body, your time in solitary is extended . . . In solitary Ian became a self-described ‘cutter’; he would take anything sharp on his food tray to cut his wrists and arms just to watch himself bleed. His mental health unraveled, and he attempted suicide several times. Each time he hurt himself or acted out, his time in isolation was extended. Ian spent 18 years in uninterrupted solitary confinement”—despite calls from even his victim about his inhumane confinement.

Tragically Ian Manuel’s story is not unique. The same day the U.S. Supreme Court decided Montgomery v. Louisiana, President Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement in the federal prison system for all children and youths, and for adults incarcerated for “low-level infractions” in an executive action that should serve as a model for all states and local jurisdictions. The President wrote solitary confinement “has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior. Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones. Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses. The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance. . . . In America, we believe in redemption. We believe, in the words of Pope Francis, that ‘every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.’ We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives. And if we can give them the hope of a better future, and a way to get back on their feet, then we will leave our children with a country that is safer, stronger and worthy of our highest ideals.”

Reaching that vision of America—the one that believes in redemption and hope and equal justice for all—is the goal Bryan Stevenson has been striving for throughout his life. His critical victories over 30 years exonerating innocent death row prisoners and helping ensure fairer treatment for others, along with his earlier success before the U.S. Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons that banned the execution of children have convinced him you cannot make a difference and create justice until you get close to the people who are struggling. He has said, “All of my clients are broken. They’ve been broken by poverty. They’ve been broken by racism. They’ve been broken by inequality. They’ve been broken by injustice. . . . When you’re broken you need grace. When you’re broken you need love. When you’re broken you need fellowship. When you’re broken you need understanding. When you’re broken you need vision.” Bryan Stevenson is unwavering in that vision and in lifting his voice of great moral clarity at the forefront of the struggle. Every new hard-earned and overdue victory should remind us all that we must keep moving towards greater justice for all.

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Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Tamara at: March 17, 2016
Deeply moved by this story and I hear my soul crying out for change in me and in others around me. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront where eyes can see, and those in need can be heard!

Submitted by Corrie at: February 6, 2016
Hello, I was appalled to read about the inhumane treatment of Ian Manuel. That that happened to a child(or anyone)in the United States is inconceivable! I heard Bryan Stevenson on NPR a while ago and have requested his memoir from the library. One of the things that I was recently made aware of by my sister is how cops are depicted on TV.shows. The cops invariably abuse their power or their actions are at least questionable. It is so ubiquitous that I hadn't even realized the pattern. The audience is, of course, led to vilify the suspected/accused and root for /excuse the cops, not analyze whether justice has been served. I believe this has set up how we, the white or privileged, as a society, view interactions with police officers. We are led to assume corners need to be cut, young men need to be roughed up and intimidated and we as the audience go along with these assumptions. I now look at the media with different eyes and refuse to watch cop shows. I hope this pattern has been addressed somehow. Keep up the good work in "defense of children"! Corrie Johnson

Submitted by carol chats at: February 6, 2016
Thank you!

Submitted by Anonymous at: February 6, 2016
Please tell me this story is not true.

Submitted by Mary at: February 5, 2016
A crime against our children!

Submitted by Betsy at: February 5, 2016
Stevenson's book was so moving and inspiring that it became the core message in my sermon last Sunday. His work is ministry in the best sense of the word.

Submitted by shoemaker at: February 5, 2016
the best for ourselve's and our children IS 2 go for our #40 acer's and our mule's we could do much so reflex on this it would be nice 2 have a few acre's on E STREET NW Washington DC U got it

Submitted by shoemaker at: February 5, 2016
HI our childen may come into this world in peacie's's but as they live n povety and distruction some live & die in peicea's remember this country has what it want's the power's at B don't want peace or justice just look at the election process. Thank's for your dedication to children and your present & sylblem's N Marlboro county