The United States incarcerates its citizens more than any other country. Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts the poor and people of color and does not make us safer. EJI is working to end our misguided reliance on over-incarceration.
EJI believes we need a new era of truth and justice that starts with confronting our history of racial injustice.
American history begins with the creation of a myth to absolve white settlers of the genocide of Native Americans: the false belief that nonwhite people are less human than white people. This belief in racial hierarchy survived slavery’s abolition, fueled racial terror lynchings, demanded legally codified segregation, and spawned our mass incarceration crisis.
The dehumanizing myth of racial difference endures today because we don’t talk about it.
EJI is working to change that. We’re exposing the myth and its toxic legacy in our reports and videos—and on this page. Our Community Remembrance Project is empowering communities to change the physical landscape to honestly reflect our history. And we’re using the power of place to inspire people to visit Montgomery, Alabama, to learn and reflect in our Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
For more than 30 years, EJI lawyers have been winning relief for clients by telling their stories. We’ve overturned wrongful convictions and unfair sentences by exposing official misconduct and racial bias. We’ve had tremendous success in courtrooms across the country. But America needs a deeper and broader narrative shift to move from mass incarceration into an era of truth and justice: we need to honestly confront our history.
The Equal Justice Initiative (or EJI) is a non-profit organization, based in Montgomery, Alabama, that provides legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes, poor prisoners without effective representation, and others who may have been denied a fair trial. It guarantees the defense of anyone in Alabama in a death penalty case.
Founder Bryan Stevenson was depicted in the legal drama Just Mercy which is based on his memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption which tells the story of Walter McMillian and, in less detail, the stories of numerous other cases that Stevenson worked (including not only adult death penalty cases but also U.S. Supreme Court cases which ended the death penalty and life imprisonment for child offenders).
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) was founded in 1989 in Montgomery, Alabama, by attorney Bryan Stevenson, who has served as the organization's executive director ever since. He had been working on Alabama defense cases since 1989 for the Southern Center for Human Rights and was director of its center for Alabama operations. It had received federal funding to provide legal representation to prisoners on death row. In 1994, after Republicans gained control of Congress in a mid-term election, they ceased funding such centers. Alabama is the only state that does not provide legal assistance to death row prisoners; EJI has committed to representing them.
Stevenson converted his operation in Montgomery by founding a non-profit, the Equal Justice Initiative. In 1995 he was awarded a MacArthur fellowship, and he applied all of the money to support the EJI. The EJI "guarantees legal representation to every inmate on the state’s death row." It has worked to eliminate excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerate innocent death row prisoners, confront abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aid children prosecuted as adults.
By 2013 EJI had a staff of 40, including attorneys and support personnel.
Campaign against life-without-parole sentencing for juveniles
Following the Roper v. Simmons (2005) ruling, in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence to death a person who had been a minor under 18 at the time of the crime, Stevenson began to work to have similar thinking applied to the sentencing of a convicted minor to life-without-parole in prison. He has argued several cases in the Supreme Court, and has been part of a movement to urge changes in extreme sentencing of juveniles convicted of crimes.
The Court has made several significant rulings to lighten sentencing of juveniles since Roper v. Simmons. In 2006 EJI started a litigation campaign to challenge the sentencing of minors to life-without-parole. Stevenson testified before the court in 2009 in one case. In Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court ruled that "mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger in non-homicide cases are unconstitutional." Since 2010, EJI has provided legal representation to nearly 100 people in the United States who are entitled to new sentences under Graham.
At that time, there were nearly "3000 children age 17 or younger who had been sentenced to imprisonment until death through life-without-parole sentences imposed with very little scrutiny or review. Children as young as 13 were among the thousands condemned to die in prison."
Most of the sentences imposed on these juveniles were mandatory, but EJI continued to argue along the lines of the Court's ruling in Roper v. Simmons, that juveniles have "unique immaturity, impulsiveness, vulnerability, and capacity for redemption and rehabilitation."
EJI argued in US Supreme Court cases Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs that the mandatory sentences constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" and were therefore unconstitutional. The Court ruled in these cases in June 2012 that even when cases involved homicide, mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors 17 or younger are unconstitutional. The ruling affected statutes in 29 states.
In Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), the Court ruled that the decision in Miller v. Alabama had to be applied retroactively, and required those sentencing to consider “children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change.” An estimated 2300 prisoners nationwide may be affected whose sentences will be reviewed.
Campaign against the death penalty
In April 2015, EJI won the release on different grounds of Anthony Ray Hinton, a black man who had been on death row in Alabama for nearly 30 years; he had continued to maintain his innocence. He was released after being wrongfully convicted of murder due to inadequate counsel and faulty evidence. He had finally gained a new trial on appeal, as the defense found flaws in the main evidence used by the prosecution. In preparation for trial, the prosecution found that the bullets used in the crime did not match the gun they had traced to Hinton's home. There was no case, and the state dropped the charges.
As of 2019, the EJI organization has prevented more than 125 people from receiving the death penalty.
The EJI has published a number of studies, including Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which was first published in 2015 and is in its 3rd edition. It concludes that a total of 3,959 lynchings of African Americans had occurred in the twelve states of the South from 1877 to 1950. The victims were mostly African-American men, although women and children were also killed. The report classified the lynchings as racial terrorism, designed to suppress the African-American community, especially as the southern legislatures were passing new laws and constitutions to disenfranchise most blacks at the turn of the century. Whites maintained this political exclusion, in part through regular intimidation and violence, through the mid-1960s.
The report discusses the long-term effects of the decades of violence on the African-American community and southern society, and on relations between the races. According to the EJI, the history of lynching and white supremacy underlies the South's history of extensive use of the death penalty and incarceration of African Americans. Stevenson and EJI staff believe this past must be acknowledged and commemorated "with memorials and monuments that encourage and create space for the 'restorative power of truthtelling' ", as has been done by other countries and communities.
This new research added nearly 700 cases to previous documentation of lynchings of African Americans in this period. EJI has since published two updated editions of its summary data, which increased the total number of black racial terror victims identified to 4,084 in the Southern states, and 300 in other states in this same time period.
Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Opened on April 26, 2018, also in Montgomery, the Memorial is intended to call attention to "an aspect of the nation's racial history that’s discussed the least," according to Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson: the 4,400 victims of "terror lynchings" black people from 1877 through 1950. "The memorial's design evokes the image of a racist hanging, featuring scores of dark metal columns suspended in the air from above. The rectangular structures, some of which lie flat on the ground and resemble graves, include the names of counties where lynchings occurred, plus dates and the names of the victims. The goal is for individual counties to claim the columns on the ground and erect their own memorials."
MONTGOMERY, AL 36104-2538 | Tax-exempt since April 1995
Classification (NTEE) Censorship, Freedom of Speech and Press Issues (Civil Rights, Social Action, Advocacy)
Nonprofit Tax Code Designation: 501(c)(3) Defined as: Organizations for any of the following purposes: religious, educational, charitable, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition (as long as it doesn’t provide athletic facilities or equipment), or the prevention of cruelty to children or animals.
Donations to this organization are tax deductible.
Planting Justice is a grassroots organization with a mission to empower people impacted by mass incarceration and other social inequities with the skills and resources to cultivate food sovereignty, economic justice, and community healing.