The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is a nonprofit advocacy and legal-aid organization based in Montgomery, Montgomery County, that aims to further social justice, expand human rights, and reform elements of the criminal justice system in the United States. EJI provides legal representation on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people who might have been wrongly convicted or charged, poor people denied effective representation, and others who may have been denied a fair trial because of discrimination and injustice. The organization earned distinction in 2012 when it successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional.
The organization has a staff of nearly 40 individuals, consisting of attorneys and support personnel. It is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that is funded by donations from individual supporters and foundations. EJI was founded in 1989 by attorney Bryan Stevenson, who has served as the unpaid executive director of the organization since then. Stevenson, who maintains a home in Montgomery, is a native of Delaware and a graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard School of Government and professor of law at New York University of Law. He has received numerous awards, including a very substantial MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Award that he donated to EJI. In 2012, Stevenson gave a speech at a Technology, Entertainment, and Design Conference that garnered more than $1 million in contributions for EJI. He and the organization have gained widespread media coverage for their advocacy and results.
Stevenson was prompted to action after working in the early 1980s at a similar organization, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) in Atlanta, Georgia. As part of a Harvard course on race and poverty, he interned at SCHR and principally reviewed case transcripts that showed how poorly some trial attorneys had represented their clients. Stevenson returned to SCHR after graduating from Harvard and began spending time in Alabama representing death row inmates. One case concerned Walter McMillian, a 45-year-old African American pulpwood worker with only a misdemeanor record who had been convicted and sentenced to death in 1988 for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white female. Stevenson's interest was piqued by the racial overtones in the case: the crime took place in Monroeville, Monroe County, mirroring the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, McMillian was having an affair with a white woman, there was questionable testimony from witnesses for the prosecution, and evidence was hidden by law enforcement officials. After numerous appeals by Stevenson were denied, he met with producers from the CBS newsmagazine show 60 Minutes. It profiled the McMillian case, prompting the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to revisit and overturn the conviction in 1993. The case altered Stevenson's faith in the judicial system in Alabama, which is the only state in the country without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners. Alabama has had, by some measures, the highest rate of death sentences per capita in recent decades.
EJI lawyers typically litigate on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, individuals who may have been wrongly charged with or convicted of violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials appear to have suffered from racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. EJI receives hundreds of requests for legal help from across the country and staffers investigate and respond to as many requests as possible. The organization has successfully overturned numerous capital murder cases and death sentences in Alabama.
Almost since its founding, EJI has been challenging excessive punishments imposed on children, including the death penalty, life imprisonment without parole, and sentences that deny any meaningful opportunity for release. EJI has represented dozens of children facing execution in Alabama, which was one of 23 states that allowed the execution of individuals who committed crimes as juveniles and had one of the highest death sentencing rates for juveniles in the nation, along with Texas and Florida. In fact, the United States had been one of the very few countries that allowed children to be sentenced to death and executed until 2005, when the Supreme Court finally banned the practice in Roper v. Simmons. In 2006, EJI launched a litigation campaign to challenge death-in-prison sentences imposed on children and won freedom for several individuals who had been sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole for nonviolent drug offenses or other petty crimes. Stevenson and other EJI attorneys went before the Supreme Court in 2009 and argued for a constitutional ban on imposing life imprisonment without parole sentences on children in the United States. In May 2010, the Court issued a landmark ruling in Graham v. Florida prohibiting that sentence for juveniles convicted of most crimes in the United States. Graham, a Florida youth, had been sentenced to life in prison at age 16 after violating the terms of his probation by committing additional crimes. The Supreme Court's ruling, however, did not directly ban life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicides.
In 2012, Stevenson and other EJI attorneys had their most notable success to date before the Supreme Court with two cases, Miller v. Alabama and Ja ckson v. Hobbs, which found that the life in prison without parole sentences imposed on Alabamian Evan Miller and Arkansan Kuntrell Jackson constituted cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Constitution. Miller was sentenced to life in prison without parole when he was convicted of intentional murder at age 14. Hobbs was similarly sentenced also at 14 for an unintentional killing in which he was not the triggerman. The Supreme Court ruled in Miller and Jackson that statutes in 29 states that allowed mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children under 17 were unconstitutional.
In 2007, EJI established the Post-Release Education and Preparation (PREP) reentry program for individuals who entered prison between the ages of 14 and 16 and have been released. PREP is a network of specialists who provide extensive post-release education and preparation for youthful offenders. The program is residential and intensive and lasts a minimum of several months, although the exact length is tailored to the needs of the individual. It involves daily supervision, counseling, and assistance in preparing for, finding, and maintaining employment after release.
EJI also conducts studies and prepares reports to assist advocates and policymakers in the work of reforming the administration of criminal justice. Recognizing the role that jury selection plays in trial fairness, EJI issued in 2010 a report entitled "Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy," which highlighted "widespread discrimination" in the selection of jurors across the Deep South. Even though it has been illegal to exclude people from jury service on the basis of race since 1875, EJI found that major criminal cases and death penalty cases are more prone to discriminatory jury selection than other types of cases. The study looked at eight states—Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and South Carolina—and discovered that in some counties, 80 percent of the African Americans who had qualified for jury service were excluded from juries. EJI is using this information to challenge convictions in some of the states in which jury selection appears to have been racially biased. In 2012, EJI investigated allegations of sexual abuse and harassment of women prisoners by male guards at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Elmore County. It then filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), which followed up with an investigation and a technical assistance report issued to the Alabama Department of Corrections by the DOJ's National Institute for Corrections.
EJI also reaches out to high school students in the Alabama Black Belt region as part of an educational outreach program. Each year, several hundred high school students have the opportunity to visit
EJI and interact with the organization's lawyers and staff and learn about legal systems, human rights, race and poverty issues,
and the intersection of law and justice.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New Press: New York, 2010.
Cole, David. No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System. New Press: New York, 1999.
Stevenson, Bryan. Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison. Montgomery, Ala.: Equal Justice Initiative, 2010.
———. Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy. Montgomery, Ala.: Equal Justice Initiative, 2010.
Published June 14, 2013
Last updated August 6, 2013