Public defenders committed to reform have always talked about two categories of fixes: financial (we obviously need more resources and more manageable caseloads to live up to our obligations to each client) and structural (we need to ensure public defenders are not put in the position where their loyalty to the client is compromised because of the competing need to please judges, funders, or retained clients).  But what we have often overlooked is a third important category: cultural reform.

Most public defenders enter the profession because they desperately want to help the people they serve.  Most quickly learn that the criminal justice system is more interested in processing poor people accused of crimes.  The system can beat the passion out of caring lawyers, and they will often come to question whether they can be the public defenders they know they need to be.  As this toxic “culture” begins to shape the way public defenders are forced to practice, many good lawyers either quit, or lose a little bit of their humanity as they struggle to sustain themselves in an uncaring and dehumanizing system.  There is a gap between the values that are important to the committed public defender and those that drive the system in which they work.

Supporting public defenders in ways that can help them hold onto the fundamental values that make the work so meaningful, and building a community to collectively reawaken the system to those values that have been lost, is the mission of Gideon’s Promise, an organization dedicated to defender-driven reform I founded in 2007.  Since its inception six and a half years ago, we have grown from a group of 16 lawyers and a handful of mentors, to a community of over 250 public defenders. The model includes programming for new defenders, developing leaders, chief defenders, trainers and teachers, and law students preparing to join the struggle.  Collectively we gather regularly to remind ourselves of the values that make this work meaningful, to examine strategies to live up to those values in a system that expects us to do otherwise, and to consider how we can spark a movement to begin to change a system that has lost sight of what equal justice means.

With this background, I read with great interest the opinion piece by David Bornstein from the New York Times called Who Will Heal the Doctors?  It had nothing to do with public defenders, and yet it had everything to do with public defenders.  Its focus is on doctors who come to the profession to serve patients and quickly have to adapt to processing files and the human being behind them.  Dedicated healers responsible for people “’facing something unknown and potentially life altering, [then] being told that [they] have seven minutes to understand their unique issues and strengths in order to find effective ways to help them.’”   Compassionate professionals whose greatest stress comes “’not from a lack of sleep or time….[but] from believing deeply in one set of values and finding that you are trapped into living by another set.’”

If one substituted the words “public defenders” for “doctors,” it could have been a piece about what I believe is the greatest threat to our nation’s public defenders.  And it is so perfectly summed up in the closing paragraph.

Could physicians come together to overthrow the current order — to start a movement to, say, Occupy Medicine? If they did, what would be the unifying cry? Down with health insurers? Tort reform or bust? Or would it begin by expressing the thing that is most precious to them that has been lost: the opportunity to practice medicine in a way that is worthy of their dedication and love. Reclaiming a sense of meaning in medicine could be the first step to rescuing the profession.

The first step in the process is for all of us, collectively, to “reclaim”  a sense of purpose in our work;  a renewed appreciation for the critically important role we play in realizing justice for those with nowhere else to turn and a commitment to that role.  The next step is to motivate a defender-driven movement to transform the current system.  But the latter cannot occur until the former has been accomplished.