Nearly 80 percent of the 12 million people who move through the criminal justice system each year cannot afford a lawyer. That’s roughly 9.6 million Americans relying on government-funded resources to give them a second chance at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To put that into perspective, 40 of the 50 states have individual populations of fewer than 9 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  

This entire population of “otherized” people must put their fate into the hands of public defender offices, which are often poorly funded, under-staffed, and ill equipped to manage high-volume caseloads. These heroic, yet overwhelmed, defenders are tasked with serving as the voice of populations the system would prefer to discard.  And yet, when the national conversation about human and civil rights is discussed, public defense reform is often an afterthought – if it is a thought at all.

There is a missing chapter in the story of the poor, disproportionately minority citizens who experience police brutality or unfair, and sometimes unlawful, treatment. What happens to them when the cellphone video ends, the news cycle moves on, and they are held in jail because they can’t afford to post bail? Who then represents their interests in the courtroom?

This is why we need to expand the conversation and shed light into the shadowy corners of our nation’s criminal justice system – corners often ignored during the national discussion – but corners that hold the key to creating a truly just system.

It’s time to start talking about public defense reform. 

The “Others”

Our current criminal justice system has been forged by an assumptive narrative that casts poor communities as dangerous. Driven by this ideal, our country has adopted policies that make it easier to monitor, control and punish these otherized populations.

This has resulted in the most vulnerable Americans being processed into prison cells for long periods of time that are inconsistent with the crimes they are accused of committing – and subjected to policies that make it virtually impossible for a full return to society.

For real change to occur within our system, we can no longer accept this narrative. We can no longer accept this embarrassingly low standard of justice for those deemed “others.” We must defend their rights both in and out of the courtrooms.  

Public Defenders

Public defenders are the unsung heroes fighting for our nation’s poorest on a daily basis, despite the fact that many of our nation’s public defender offices are incredibly understaffed, often ignored and subjected to budget cuts and constant uncertainty. It is difficult enough to find an attorney who willingly accepts the lack of resources and low pay of this calling to fight for poor people.

It is even more difficult when a broken system is actively fighting against the successes of its own advocates. Many of the accused meet their public defenders for the first time mere minutes before their initial court proceedings. This approach does not grant adequate time or resources to put forth the client-centered counsel that preserves equal justice for all.

But there is hope.

Although most of the current conversation fails to appreciate the importance of public defenders, there is a growing army of zealous lawyers committed to developing strategies to reclaim the criminal justice narrative focused on those they represent.

These public defenders understand their role is not only to represent every client with a fervor unseen in many courts, but also to collectively restore humanity to our system of justice.

It’s time to create a new conversation that does not only focus on the most extreme instances of police brutality, but also on the far more common practice of “routine injustice.”  The callous disregard for the humanity of a population that’s larger than those of 40 different states, simply because our society has deemed its poorest citizens as unworthy of equal justice.

The time for delivering exceptional public defense in all communities across the country is now. But without dramatic reform and better resources and support for public defenders, the system will continue processing our nation’s poor into its prisons with little regard for the damage it’s ultimately doing to clients and their families.

Republished with permision from 

Jon Rapping's blog will serve as a platform to share the real stories of public defenders’ triumphs and struggles, as well as the story of Gideon’s Promise. We’ll provide insight into the national dialogue – and create our own – as we continue serving as the catalyst for public defense reform.