From Washington, D.C., to Cleveland, Charleston, and Chicago – and every other state, city and hamlet – criminal justice reform is the topic of national discussion as we enter 2016. Yet all the talk about police shootings, mass incarceration, and criminal justice reform miss the fundamental point that the root ailment of our system cannot be fixed by law or regulation. Instead, the solution lies in seeing the world and its people differently.  For when we lose sight of the basic humanity of those most impacted by our criminal justice system, we undermine our most cherished democratic ideals.  Once we understand this truth it becomes increasingly clear the role of the public defender is key to any real transformation of a badly crippled and corrupt criminal justice system. 

Our society has internalized the belief that people accused of crimes are dangerous “others” and are therefore, less-deserving of justice. Public defenders work to challenge that narrative every day. By listening to people targeted by the system and giving a full-throated telling of their story in a system inclined to see them only as a number, they become the vehicle to make us reexamine our ideals, and the assumptions that drive us to abandon them.

Like the canary in the coal mine, as the rest of us carry on, oblivious to the routine injustice destroying our democracy, public defenders are in the belly of the beast, screaming for us to see the inhumanity in our approach.  Like the canary, they alert us to the injustice that threatens our system.  And as we ignore their voices, like the canary, they struggle to continue to play the indispensable role our Constitution assigns them.

Too many of these idealistic and passionate men and women are burning out because it is too hard to be in courts every day, shouting into the wind for the voiceless; watching too many people being processed through the system; too many people cutting corners to rush to justice; and too many lives being ruined. All of which leads to the deterioration of our justice system, our communities and the very fabric of our nation.

One public defender, a lone canary in the criminal justice “coal mine,” can alert us to the problem, but will not have the strength to survive without support, let alone to become part of the solution.  But by building a movement of public defenders to demand equal justice in our nation’s most broken systems, Gideon’s Promise addresses this challenge.  Gideon’s Promise brings change by supporting and equipping an army of public defenders committed to learning the stories behind the people thrown into the system and using their skills to ensure they are seen as members of our community who are worthy of justice.

A national conversation about criminal justice reform has finally begun.  Proposed solutions include decriminalizing minor offenses to reduce the number of people brought into the system on the front end, and sentencing reform to lessen the pain on the back end.  But even with these changes, we will continue to arrest poor and minority populations and to process them through a system that will disproportionately punish them.  Meaningful reform demands that we also rethink the way we treat people between these two endpoints.  

And it is the public defender who is in the key position to address this part of the solution.  For these defenders serve as a vital check and balance for judges, prosecutors and law enforcement, all of whom are increasingly in the news for errors in judgment, or willful disregard for the rights of those suspected of wrongdoing. As elected officials, many judges and prosecutors face pressure, inconsistent with what justice demands, to dispatch with cases quickly and to secure convictions.  Even well-intentioned court officers, without the background story of the accused or critical facts needed to make life or death decisions, will rely on the assumptions that drive injustice.  Public defenders are the vehicle necessary to challenge practices that violate the constitution and to ensure information about the accused, necessary for a fair outcome, is brought to light.  Without them judges and prosecutors are more likely to cut corners or to make important decisions without complete information.  Without someone to push back against the status quo, these officials will lose sight of their own role in perpetuating injustice.  

An army of public defenders is the most-effective way to challenge the systemic assumptions that drive us to see poor people as "others," and less worthy of justice. This year will include a presidential election, replete with ideas about how to tackle this now-obvious threat to our democratic ideals.  Therefore, now is the time to demand that candidates, the media, and participants in these public and policy debates begin recognizing that public defenders are an important piece of the criminal justice reform solution.

We now find ourselves deep in the dangerous criminal justice “coal mine.”  Only when public defenders, the canaries who are first to identify systemic problems and best equipped to raise the collective consciousness necessary to solve them, are given the attention and support they deserve will we see any true reform. 

The hallowed right to counsel was announced fifty-three years ago today, in the Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright.  But it remains a right that has gone wholly unfulfilled.  Gideon’s promise is the promise of equal justice.  The public defender is the vehicle through which it is achieved.  This lesson is as relevant today as it was in 1963.  On this anniversary, we need to reaffirm our commitment to fulfilling this promise.