Confronting injustice in the American criminal justice system
United States of America / Freedom for Equality / 10 apr 2018
The United States has 5% of the world’s human population, yet nearly 25% of global prison population. The US incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. The increase in the jail and prison population from less than 200,000 in 1972 to 2.2 million today has led to unprecedented prison overcrowding and put tremendous strain on US state budgets. Mass incarceration has had devastating consequences for people of colour: at the beginning of the 21st century, one in three black boys, and one in six Latino boys, was projected to go to jail or prison in his lifetime. Racial bias continues to pollute the criminal justice system in the US at every level. African Americans are arrested at 2.5 times higher rates, half as likely to be released on bail and six times more likely to be incarcerated. In the states where the death penalty still exists, African Americans are again, more likely to receive it.
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society. In addition to providing legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons, they provide re-entry assistance to formerly incarcerated people. EJI also use their powerful voice to campaign and lobby against the death penalty and excessive punishment in the US. They are committed to changing the narrative about race in America, producing ground-breaking reports and organising public events and displays. In April 2018, they will open a National Memorial for Peace and Justice and a Legacy Museum named “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration” in Montgomery, Alabama, to tell the history of racial injustice in the city and across the US.
Anthony Ray Hinton walked out of prison a free man in April 2015, after spending 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. With the help of EJI, he became the 152nd person proven to be innocent and exonerated from death row since 1983. Mr Hinton was sentenced to death for two murders, based solely on the assertion, subsequently proven to be incorrect, that his mother’s gun was the murder weapon. The prosecutor in his trial had a documented history of racial bias and said he could tell Mr Hinton was guilty and “evil” solely from his appearance, while claiming without evidence that the bullets used in the murders matched Mrs Hinton’s gun. Mr Hinton’s then attorney failed to hire a qualified firearms examiner to challenge this claim and Mr Hinton was convicted. For sixteen years, EJI attorneys petitioned state officials to re-examine the evidence, but they failed to do so. A new trial was finally ordered after EJI managed to get Mr Hinton’s case to the United States Supreme Court, where his conviction was overturned, based on his original attorney’s deficient representation. For his new trial, the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences tested the evidence and confirmed that the bullets used in the shooting cannot be matched to Hinton’s weapon. Mr Hinton was finally granted his freedom.
Photo credit: Bernard Troncale
Through challenging racial injustice both inside the courtroom and out, EJI is forcing Americans to come to terms with the long-term impacts of slavery on their nation and how its legacy has manifested itself in the mass incarceration of African Americans across the US. Equal Justice Initiative has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults. They have won reversals, relief or release for over 125 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row. They continue to work towards a justice system that is fair and equal for all.