Support Public Defenders – Transform the Culture of Injustice
Republished with permission of the author.
In October 2015 VICE Magazine published Mending Our Ways, an examination of solutions to America’s criminal justice crisis. Jonathan Rapping contributed the following piece on the importance of supporting a movement of public defenders. Due to space limitations, VICE included an abridged version of this piece in that publications. Please check out Mending Our Ways to view the other essays on criminal justice reform.
When Hillary Clinton recently told Black Lives Matter activists, “I don’t believe you change hearts; you change laws,” she revealed a philosophy shaped by a career in politics. Conditioned to see the answer to every problem through a policy lens, Clinton cannot imagine altering people’s assumptions. But the activists to whom she spoke understand that injustice is driven by the values we embrace, and that to achieve long-lasting change, our country must alter how it feels about minorities and the poor. In the criminal justice system, no one is better positioned to drive this effort than public defenders, who are the voice of 80 percent of those accused of crimes.
Over the past year, publicized instances of police brutality have awakened us to the reality that equal justice in America is illusory. We have come to understand that abusive treatment during police encounters reflects the fact that some lives are deemed more expendable than others.
But for every person killed by a police officer, tens of thousands are arrested and thrown into prison cells without a lawyer with the time and resources to ensure they are treated fairly as our Constitution demands. Many will return and never fully reintegrate into society. Although the stakes could not be higher, because of overwhelming caseloads many public defenders only have a very brief time to spend with each client and are forced to work without critical resources, like investigators and experts, so essential to evaluating the merit of the accusation. This routine injustice wreaks far more havoc on our most vulnerable communities than more flagrant examples of police abuse. But the root cause of this abuse, whether in the streets or the courtroom, is the same. Across the board, criminal justice professionals are driven by assumptions about minorities and the poor and the treatment they deserve that foster a culture of indifference toward these communities.
Public defenders are the vehicle through which we can address systemic apathy in the courts. Certainly, in a country committed to ensuring that individual rights are not dependent on income, public defenders are indispensable. But if we only see them as fighting for one person at a time, we may overlook the truly transformative role they can play in changing the hearts and minds of those who administer justice. They are a ready-made army, capable of countering the dangerous stereotypes and misguided assumptions that fuel mass incarceration.
As the president of Gideon’s Promise, I work with hundreds of public defenders committed to rewriting this narrative and driving reform in many of the places where the promise of equal justice remains most unfulfilled. While we primarily partner with public defender offices in the Deep South, increasingly we are working with offices across the nation committed to changing the way we think about justice for the poor. These defenders remind judges, prosecutors, and juries of who our clients are and how justice demands they be treated.
Building a community of defenders to drive systemic reform requires that we teach them much more than just lawyering skills and legal doctrine. To this end, we help them recognize forces that can compel acceptance of a substandard status quo and beat the passion out of committed defenders – for example, these systems routinely value the willingness to process a large volume of cases quickly in disregard of obligations to the client, treat and talk about the accused in dehumanizing ways, and promote the view that public defenders are inferior lawyers – and to develop strategies to resist these pressures and support as they learn how to respond in ways consistent with client-centered values. While prosecutors and judges frequently assess the worth of the accused based on only the facts of the alleged crime they committed, we teach our lawyers to learn about their clients beyond the case and to emphasize the dignity and humanity with which they deserve to be treated as a routine part of their advocacy whether during plea negotiations, bond determinations, trials, or sentencing hearings. We help them understand their role as change agents equipped to challenge the assumptions of others in the system about who their clients are, the life circumstances that brought them into the system, and how justice demands they be treated.
We work with newer lawyers, supervising attorneys, and chief defenders to develop a coordinated strategy to redefine the prevailing criminal justice narrative every time they stand up for an individual client, when they participate in policy discussions, and when they engage in community and media outreach. When they collectively do this they become a catalyst to transform a criminal justice culture that has accepted the dehumanizing processing of poor people.
In fact, no one is better positioned to tackle this critical piece of the larger reform effort than public defenders. But the current discussion ignores these advocates and the important role they play in countering our collective indifference. Hillary Clinton’s words help us understand why—politicians often look for an immediate legislative solution to the problem of the day, and view as Pollyannaish the belief that we can change hearts. But in doing so, they become incapable of imagining truly visionary change.
Individuals and organizations that care about justice must demand that politicians at every level make a commitment to lawyers for poor people accused of crimes. Federal criminal justice funding to states and localities should be conditioned on the requirement that public defenders have manageable caseloads and adequate resources. Public defender training programs must see these lawyers as an army capable of challenging systemic assumptions and be expanded to teach more than only law and skills. Foundations and other grant-making entities that hope to promote social justice should commit funds to developing public defenders into a movement to catalyze reform. But this will only happen when we recognize that meaningful reform demands that we change the way we feel about the poor and the role a movement of public defenders can play in that process.
Our criminal justice crisis is arguably today’s greatest civil rights challenge. It almost exclusively impacts the poor and disproportionately communities of color. Until we begin challenging prevailing assumptions about these people, equal justice will remain out of reach. Supporting public defenders who humanize those they represent in trial is essential to this end, and our failure to make this a central part of the criminal justice reform discussion ensures we come up short in our quest for equal justice.