Andrea James and Bryan Stevenson

As protesters around the United States call for an end to racial violence caused by policing, the country also needs a deeper investigation into its criminal justice system, which incarcerates Black people at approximately five times the rate of white people. Systemic racism is evident at each stage of the criminal justice process, from sentencing to parole and early release. Spending even a short time in prison can have detrimental effects on the lives of Black and Brown people, infringing on their human rights and affecting their prospects for jobs, education, and civic engagement.  

Michelle Alexander describes this phenomenon in her book The New Jim Crow, which students explore in this lesson. Students first examine the implications and characteristics of the discriminatory laws in effect during Jim Crow-era segregation before applying this lens to research current policies, collecting data on civil and political rights involved with bail, sentencing, voting, and more. The learners will “become a defender” by creating educational materials on mass incarceration, reaching out to their state representatives, and taking mindful action with the organizations of two human rights defenders, Andrea James and Bryan Stevenson. 

Andrea James has worked to reform the criminal justice system for more than 25 years as the founder and executive director of Families for Justice as Healing, the founder of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women, and the 2016 RFK Human Rights Award laureate. Upon presenting the award, RFK Human Rights President Kerry Kennedy said James is “precisely the moral [leader] our country needs to solve one of our most pressing human rights problems…a broken criminal justice system that unjustly targets communities of color and the poor.” 

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization that has had a positive impact on unfair sentencing, innocent death row prisoners, incarceration of the mentally ill, and prosecution of children as adults. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship (known as a “genius grant”), the American Bar Association Medal, and the National Medal of Liberty from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Because all the activities involve independent or group research that can be done online, this lesson plan fits into either virtual or in-person classrooms, with opportunities for discussion and collaboration on Zoom or with classmates. This lesson will be an excellent complement to The New Jim Crow, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, or Upper Bunkies Unite: And Other Thoughts On the Politics of Mass Incarceration by Andrea James.