Founded in 1989 by public-interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is a private nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to people alleged to have been “illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.” Blacks and Hispanics constitute a vast majority of these unfortunates, says EJI, because: (a) “people of color are marginalized, disadvantaged, and disproportionately impoverished”; (b) “the criminal-justice system is infected with racial bias”; and (c) “a presumption of guilt and dangerousness has led to unjustified police violence against black and brown people.” By EJI’s calculus, all of these inequities stem from the fact that “the United States has done very little to acknowledge [its] legacy of genocide, slavery, lynching, and racial segregation.”
EJI contends that “the formal abolition of slavery did nothing to overcome the harmful ideas” that undergirded that “brutal and dehumanizing institution … in America.” Rather, those ideas simply found a new mode of expression in the “racial subordination” that pervaded “the era of Jim Crow and segregation” throughout the 20th century. And even today, claims the Initiative, “many communities” — particularly in the South — continue to embrace a “narrative” that “celebrates the slavery era.” Yet another “powerful statement about our nation’s failure to value the black lives lost [via] racial violence,” adds EJI, is the fact that “no prominent public memorial or monument commemorates the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in America.”
EJI argues that just as lynching was “a way to reestablish white supremacy and suppress black civil rights” in the post-Civil War South, it “reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal-justice system today.” By EJI’s telling, this legacy is reflected in the “mass incarceration” that “has had devastating consequences for people of color” — e.g., “African Americans make up about 13 percent of the nation’s population, but constitute 28 percent of all arrests, 40 percent of those incarcerated in jails and prisons, and 42 percent of the population on death row.” According to EJI, these statistics are evidence of the “implicit biases” that “have been shown to affect policing … and all aspects of the criminal-justice system”—and cannot be attributed to higher rates of criminality in the black community.
EJI deems it morally reprehensible that “the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners,” and that the nation’s jail and prison population has increased “from less than 200,000 in 1972 to 2.2 million today.” In its analysis of this trend, the Initiative notes that prison populations across the U.S. began to rise with particular rapidity in the 1990s, when lawmakers “campaigned to ‘get tough on crime’” — a policy that led to a period during which “America built a new prison every two weeks.” In the very next sentence, however, EJI concedes that “violent crime has fallen by more than 51 percent since 1991, and property crime has decreased by more than 43 percent.” Yet EJI chooses not to interpret these figures as evidence that plummeting crime rates may actually have resulted from rising incarceration rates; rather, it views the numbers as proof that public spending on U.S. prisons is far higher than what is necessary in an era of relatively low crime rates.
EJI believes that the confinement of “children” under the age of 18 in adult jails and prisons “is indefensible, cruel, and unusual, and it should be banned” — particularly in light of the fact that young people behind bars are disproportionately nonwhite. In November 2009, EJI attorneys went to the United States Supreme Court and argued in favor of a ban against life-without-parole prison sentences for anyone younger than 18. To EJI’s delight, the Court ultimately outlawed such sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses. Building upon that success, in March 2012 EJI lawyers again went before the Supreme Court to argue that sentencing “children 17 or younger” to life-in-prison-without-parole “for any offense” — including homicide — “is cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.”
Claiming that the American criminal-justice system is biased not only against nonwhites, but also against low-income defendants, EJI asserts that “wealth — not culpability — shapes outcomes,” and that “indigent people are unfairly disadvantaged at every step in a system that treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent.”
EJI is further troubled by the fact that when inmates are released from prison, they commonly face “an array of lifelong barriers that affect employment and business opportunities; deny access to student loans, housing, and food assistance; and restrict the right to vote.” Noting that these consequences often have a racial component, EJI laments that “13 percent of African American men nationwide are “disenfranchised” because of their criminal histories, a rate that is “seven times the national average.”
Such post-release hurdles that ex-convicts must deal with are especially objectionable, says EJI, in light of the fact that, according to “experts,” there are “tens of thousands of false convictions each year across the country.” The stakes surrounding such errors are highest, says the Initiative, in cases that involve the death penalty, which EJI describes as “a failed, expensive policy defined by bias and error.” Advancing the notion that capital punishment is “a direct descendant of lynching,” EJI points out that just as “more than eight in ten American lynchings between 1889 and 1918 occurred in the South,” “more than eight in ten of the more than 1,400 executions carried out in this country since 1976 have been in the South.” Moreover, “modern death sentences are disproportionately meted out to African Americans accused of crimes against white victims.”
EJI is also strongly opposed to the use of solitary confinement as a punishment for any crime whatsoever, on grounds that “people held in long-term solitary confinement suffer from anxiety, paranoia, perceptual disturbances, and deep depression.”
In an effort to promote its agendas and policies regarding race and criminal justice as aggressively as possible, EJI regularly produces reports, discussion guides, short films, and other educational materials that “explore our nation’s history of racial injustice.” (To view a partial list of key EJI reports that focus on the theme of racial injustice, click here.) In addition, EJI staffers conduct educational tours and presentations for thousands of students, teachers, faith leaders, professional associations, community groups, and international visitors each year.
In July 2015, EJI received a $1 million grant from the Crimson Lion Foundation.
In 2015 and 2016, Google.com announced that it was giving EJI a total of $2 million in donations. Half of that sum was earmarked to fund the creation of “civil rights landmarks” such as a large national memorial honoring the 3,445 black Americans who lost their lives at the end of lynchers’ ropes from 1882-1964, plus additional memorial markers that would be situated at the various sites where those lynchings took place.