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Chancellor handing out copies of "Just Mercy" at convocation

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank hands out free copies of “Just Mercy” to more than 5,000 new students on Sept. 1 following the Chancellor’s convocation at the Kohl Center. The book, by Bryan Stevenson, is this year’s selection for Go Big Read, a UW-Madison community reading program.

In a shared bid for improved social justice, Madison police recruits and officers from UW-Madison and Middleton for the first time are participating in Go Big Read, the university’s annual common-book program in which students, staff and faculty across campus read and study the same selection.

This year’s choice, New York Times nonfiction bestseller “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” was written by Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-educated, Alabama-based criminal defense lawyer who champions the rights of poor people and minorities in a legal system that too often seems to trample them.

Based on gripping stories from Stevenson’s own client files, the book, published last year, proposes changes he argues will improve the administration of criminal justice, particularly in matters disproportionately affecting poor and minority defendants.

He argues for the elimination of mandatory sentencing, because it limits judges’ abilities to consider context on a case-by-case basis, and more lenient treatment for nonviolent drug offenders, whose criminal “warehousing” has helped give the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world.

“I think the system should be better,” Stevenson said in an interview. “We do know we have this system that is very wealth-centered, and we don’t prioritize the needs of the poor and people of color when they’re accused.”

That’s a message that resonates well, particularly at this moment in policing, with law enforcement agencies locally and nationally that are looking for ways to manage implicit biases and rebuild trust in marginalized communities, where controversial police shootings and racial disparities in arrests, convictions and sentencing strain public trust.

Dane County also has seen protests and rising tension over racial disparities in achievement and criminal justice, and some police shootings, including the killing of two unarmed men in Madison: 30-year-old Paul Heenan, who was white, in 2012, and Tony Robinson, 19, who was black, in March. Both shootings were ruled justified.

“For me, it just sort of clicked, what opportune timing it was,” said Madison police chief Mike Koval, about directing the 24 members of his current recruit class to read the book prior to the start of their training in September, and about his plans to use the book as a supplement to the department’s extensive anti-bias classes for recruits.

“(The book) shows the brokenness of the criminal justice system, particularly if you’re poor or a person of color,” said Koval, who also gave every member of his command staff a copy. “Whether we like it or not, as cops, we’re complicit in these outcomes. The book serves as a wake-up call for all of us positioned on the front lines.”

The recruits also will meet and talk with Stevenson when he visits Madison this week for Big Go Read activities on campus, including a free public talk at Union South on Monday night.

UW-Madison police chief Sue Riseling said almost all police agencies in Dane County have ordered at least one copy of the book, after she briefed her peers about the book’s selection for this seventh year of Go Big Read at an April meeting of the Dane County Chiefs of Police Association.

This month, every member of the UW-Madison police department is being asked by Riseling to read it. She also encouraged her fellow chiefs to read the book, which revolves around the case of Walter McMillian, a young black man sentenced to death in Alabama after a two-day trial for the murder of a white female store clerk, despite dozens of alibi witnesses that put him at a church fish fry.

McMillian spent six years on death row before Stevenson took his case and got the sentence overturned in 1993, after proving to the appeals court that the state’s witnesses had lied and that the prosecution had illegally withheld evidence pointing to McMillian’s innocence.

“I’ve dedicated my life to working in this system that is so profoundly flawed,” Riseling said in a university statement. “It was very emotional for me to read the book. I personally found the book, at times, very gut-wrenching.”

Middleton police chief Chuck Foulke, who ordered copies of “Just Mercy” for his entire staff and the city’s elected leaders, echoed Riseling on systemic flaws.

“We’ve got disparity, not just in the criminal justice system, but in a lot of systems in Dane County,” Foulke said. “We’re not doing things by any means close to perfectly here.”

On campus during the fall semester, more than 170 courses are using the book, in disciplines including business, education, English, history, law, nursing, political science and social work. At the start of the semester Chancellor Rebecca Blank also gave free copies to some 5,000 new students — mostly freshmen and transfers — and first-year law students also got copies to read and discuss.

Cecilia Klingele, an assistant professor of law, is using the book as a supplement in a course covering the development of American criminal law that teaches first-year law students how to read and apply modern statutes.

She described “Just Mercy” as providing a crash course in how laws affect the lives of real people.

“The book is a stark and necessary reminder that the criminal justice system ... does not always produce ‘just’ results for victims, defendants or communities,” she said in a statement. “The more we are aware of our own ability to do injustice, the better prepared we are to guard against it. The stories (Stevenson) tells are helpful reminders, even though they are painful to face.”

In addition to UW-Madison, Stevenson said he’d been asked to discuss the book at a “nice mix” of schools in recent weeks, including Michigan State, Temple, North Carolina and Oberlin College.

He also was pleased to be invited to meet with Madison police officers, an offer he described as rare.

“They are interested in trying to be proactive in policing, which is really encouraging,” Stevenson said.

But making real changes to problems in the U.S. criminal justice system will require a much broader change in mindset, he said.

“We just aren’t doing a good job of prioritizing having a fair and reasonable administration of justice,” Stevenson said. “We prioritize toughness and finality instead.

“I think we need to step back from that rhetoric,” he added. “It’s really hard to make needed changes when everyone is competing as to who can be the toughest.”

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Karen Rivedal is the education beat reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.