As the nation finally awakens to the reality of our broken criminal justice system, a long overdue conversation about how to reform it has emerged.  But the solutions being proposed are destined to fall short, as they focus exclusively on changing policies while the challenge demands a transformation of hearts and minds. Until we recognize the need to tackle the problem of culture, and focus on how we can build a movement to change it, equal justice will remain an illusion.  

The assumptions driving our current criminal justice system have been forged by a narrative honed over four decades that has cast poor communities of color as dangerous and persuaded us to adopt policies that made it easier to monitor, control, and punish these other-ized populations.

It was a strategy developed by Southern politicians who seized on the unrest of the civil rights movement to launch a tough on crime campaign that demonized inner city communities.  As the strategy proved effective at galvanizing the white vote, it became a staple of political campaigns across the country by politicians on both the right and the left. We soon came to accept a criminal-justice storyline that divides the world into categories of villains and heroes. Police and prosecutors are good guys in white hats, and the communities they police—particularly poor and minority communities—are presumed dangerous.  

This world view, that has completely permeated the American psyche, is the driver behind every aspect of our criminal justice system today.  As a result, we have stood by as law enforcement has disproportionately policed and harassed our most marginalized communities. We have accepted the increased criminalization of relatively minor behaviors under the belief that additional punishment and incarceration protected us from the more dangerous members of society.  We have watched as the most vulnerable among us are processed into prison cells for increasingly lengthy periods of time, and rendered unable to fully return to society. And all this has gone on while we have failed to provide them with advocates who could ensure that they are treated as justice demands. But all of these observable trends — abusive policing, over-criminalization, draconian sentencing policies – are symptoms of a deeper phenomenon. 

We have embraced a set of values inconsistent with our democratic ideals and have created a criminal justice culture that dehumanizes the poor, making it easy to accept an embarrassingly low standard of justice for them.  It is these observable injustices that have awakened us from our slumber and forced us to confront the crisis.

Making minor adjustments to a set of existing rules as a way of altering what we most obviously observe is an easy prescription. But alone, this approach is myopic. It will leave unchanged the forces driving injustice and render us susceptible to other manifestations of our corrupted value system in short time. One set of injustices will soon be replaced by another unless we do the hard work of transforming the misguided values that drive them.

Take, for example, our efforts to curb abusive policing. Two decades ago, many urban police departments banned the use of chokeholds. This policy was in response to an increase in civilian deaths at the hands of police. But the root cause of police abuse lies in the fact that many police officers learn to view poor communities of color as dangerous and so assume that excessive force is justified in subduing them. While the chokehold ban may have been driven by laudable motivations, it has been predictably ineffective. It has not stopped police beatings – and so we grieve the death of Freddie Gray. It has not put an end to police shootings – as we know from the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, and many others. In fact, despite the ban, these chokeholds continue, as evidenced by the choking death of Eric Garner in New York, one of the cities that banned the practice long ago. Because the assumptions that drive the use of excessive force have not changed, the ban has done little to curb abusive policing.

If we are to truly transform our criminal justice system we will need to begin to change the culture, not by changing rules or enacting policies, but by infusing the criminal justice system with a set of values consistent with what justice demands. 

Justice will only be achieved when those who administer the justice system truly embrace this new value set—based on the ideals of true democracy and respect for all citizens equally – and internalize them.  This can be done, but not by legislative fiat. It requires the work of a movement of individuals on the ground working to challenge the status quo. No group is better poised to form the core of this movement than our nation’s public defenders. Collectively, they serve as the voice of our marginalized populations in the criminal justice system. For every poor person killed by a police officer, tens of thousands are arrested. These men and women rely on public defenders to speak for them in a system that has accepted routine injustice. These defenders have the power to remind the system of the humanity of those they represent and of what justice demands. Collectively, this army of advocates can begin rewriting the criminal justice narrative about who our clients are and how they should be treated.

But most of the debate fails to appreciate the importance of public defenders to any larger criminal justice solution. It is not that they do not appreciate the importance of the right to counsel. But because they only see public defenders as fighting for justice one client at a time, they miss the potential for this group as a whole to transform the systemic assumptions that allow us to devalue poor people accused of crimes.

Through Gideon’s Promise, we are grooming a community of public defenders who understand their role not only as individually representing each client, but also collectively restoring humanity to our system of justice. These lawyers make up a growing movement who collectively go through ongoing training and support as they develop strategies to reclaim the criminal justice narrative surrounding those they represent.

Gideon’s Promise offers a model that enables these defenders to resist the systemic pressure to accept the status quo while learning how to effectively change the assumptions that shape others in the system. They are working tirelessly to build a foundation from which to launch a broader movement to change this culture. 

If reformers are serious about developing a strategy to truly reform criminal justice, they must embrace the need to look beyond policy fixes and focus on transforming the existing culture. They must understand this will not be done in statehouses, but will be through the work of a movement of committed individuals who are working to change the assumptions within the system. And they must reimagine how they see public defenders, lest they miss the opportunity to support the mobilization of a ready-made army of advocates that will drive this cultural transformation