Nonprofit Voice | Gideon's Promise works to ensure equal justice for all

In 1963, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Gideon v. Wainright that state courts are required under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to provide counsel in criminal cases to represent defendants who are unable to afford to pay their own attorneys.

Recently, the State of Georgia and four of its counties were forced to settle a lawsuit for failing to provide even the minimal representation required under the constitution; both state and local officials resisted acknowledging a problem until the federal Department of Justice took the unusual step of weighing in on behalf of Georgia's poor.

Jonathan Rapping is president and founder of GCN member Gideon’s Promise, an organization dedicated to building a movement of public defenders to transform criminal justice in our nation’s most broken systems. Just last year, he was named a 2014 MacArthur Fellow for his transformative work on criminal justice reform. He recently presented at TEDxAtlanta on Building a New Generation of Public Defenders. And in this edition of Nonprofit Voice, he discusses how his organization continues to work to lead this movement.

OPINION | by Jonathan Rapping, President & Founder of Gideon's Promise | May 21, 2015

 

There is arguably no greater civil rights crisis facing America today than criminal justice. There are 2.2 million people incarcerated in America, mostly for non-violent crimes. Once released, many are ineligible to return to their homes and jobs, to obtain educational loans, and to vote. They are almost exclusively poor and disproportionately of color. As a society, we simply monitor, prosecute, and punish marginalized populations far more aggressively than their more privileged counterparts. The greatest threat to equal justice—and to our best opportunity to even the playing field—is the justice system’s failure to ensure poor people have lawyers who can protect their rights.

Fifty-two years ago, when it mandated a right to counsel for everyone accused of a crime in a case called Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court made clear that no lay person could maneuver our complex system of laws alone, and that the lawyer is the vehicle necessary to ensure justice. If we are committed to equal justice, we must ensure poor people have the same kind of lawyer you and I would pay for. All across America, this promise remains unfulfilled. Georgia, sadly, is no exception.

I moved to Georgia ten years ago, when it launched a new statewide public defender system meant to address widespread deficiencies in efforts to fulfill the right of quality counsel for those unable to afford it. At the time, the nation looked to Georgia, hoping it would serve as a model for reform. The stakes could not be higher.

Unfortunately, that hope has not been realized. Public defenders across Georgia continue to struggle with overwhelming caseloads and insufficient resources. Soon after my arrival, it became clear that ensuring justice for the poor is simply not among the State’s funding priorities—and it was not alone. I began working in systems across the South, and saw similar indifference amongst lawmakers and other criminal justice professionals. I met countless defenders who entered the profession wanting to help achieve justice, but soon had the passion beaten out of them. Many quit. Others become resigned to the status quo.

I came to understand that meaningful reform could not occur until we transform a culture that has come to accept an embarrassingly low standard of justice for the poor.

In 2007, my wife and I founded Gideon’s Promise to build a strong community of public defenders with the training and support necessary to immediately improve the standard of representation for their clients. Our goal was to develop this community into a movement—changing a criminal justice culture that is anything but just, and pushing back against the forces that pressure public defenders to simply process clients.

Gideon’s Promise began with just 16 young public defenders drawn from two offices—Atlanta and New Orleans. Since then, more than 300 public defenders in 15 states have participated in our initial three-year training and support program. Our national faculty is comprised of more than 60 experienced public defenders, all volunteering for the roles of trainer and mentor. We’ve also added programs that serve our graduates, senior lawyers, leading public defenders, and more than 35 partnering  public defender offices. Through partnerships with law schools, we are also creating a pipeline placing graduates where the need is greatest. In Georgia alone, we have worked with offices in ten judicial circuits, helping to support dozens of defenders.

For those depending on court-appointed counsel each year—tens of thousands amongst the lawyers we serve alone—Gideon’s Promise is changing the face of justice. Further, we’re working with jurisdictions across the nation to share our model, helping engineer a comprehensive movement of inspired public defenders committed to transforming criminal justice in America.

These lawyers are not only raising the standard of representation for poor people today, they are contributing to a movement to finally realize equal justice in America. But there remains much to do. To learn more about the work of Gideon’s Promise, and to support our lawyers and the tens of thousands who would otherwise be voiceless, visit www.gideonspromise.org.

Jonathan Rapping was awarded a 2014 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship for his work with Gideon’s Promise, the organization he founded along with his wife, Ilham Askia.  He is also a Professor of Law and Director of the Honor's Program in Criminal Justice at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School.  He began his career as a public defender in Washington, D.C. before joining the efforts to reform indigent defense in both Georgia and New Orleans.  He is currently serving as the Director of Strategic Planning and Organizational Development for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender as Gideon’s Promise and Maryland embark on a partnership to improve criminal justice in that state. To watch his recent TED Talk on building a new generation of public defenders click here.

 

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