Editor's note: Bryan Stevenson is executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit that provides legal representation for indigent defendants and for people it believes have been denied justice in the courts. He is a professor of clinical law at New York University Law School. Stevenson spoke at the TED2012 conference this month in Long Beach, California. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.
Montgomery, Alabama (CNN) -- I'm an attorney and I represent incarcerated people, both in my home state of Alabama and across the United States.
I spend every day with people who are poor, disadvantaged, condemned and marginalized. I am persuaded that we can and should do better to create more hopeful and encouraging solutions to poverty, crime and inequality in this country.
In the last 40 years, our society has witnessed unprecedented technological change, incredible innovation and a great deal of promise and success in many areas.
We have also seen growing inequality, increased levels of poverty and unprecedented rates of imprisonment. I have come to believe that, for all the things we have accomplished, injustice, poverty and mass incarceration are stains on our society. They cannot be ignored.
In 1970 there were roughly 350,000 people in our jails and prisons. Today there are more than 2.2 million. That's not counting the nearly 5 million people who are on probation or parole. One in every 31 Americans is subject to some form of correctional control.
This policy of mass incarceration did not come out of nowhere. It was born out of a politics of fear and anger based on now discredited theories. It was our response to problems in our society that we were not creative enough -- or perhaps not courageous enough -- to solve. Public safety is a legitimate priority for any nation, but it does not explain the fact that the United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
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