When we envision a public defender, what we see is not impressive or admirable. In the public conscious, public defenders are the bumbling incompetents in courtroom dramas or the lazy do-nothings in comedies. We think of them as morally bankrupt, only defending bad guys and not doing a very good of it. Our assumption is that if you’re in legal trouble and you’re paired with a public defender, then you are basically screwed. Gideon’s Army, the Sundance 2013 hit that has aired on HBO, provides a counterbalance to this perception. While no one is pretending that bad public defenders exist, the film gives viewers the chance to see that there are many who are fighting an uphill battle for justice and embark on careers that can only be described as altruistic.
Gideon’s Army tells the story of three idealistic pupils of Jonathan Rapping, head of the Southern Public Defender Training Center. Their names are Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick, and we watch them struggle to do good in the justice system while combating the same pressures that drive many public defenders out of the game. The documentary’s investigation into why being a public defender is so difficult is like pulling on a ball of twine, unraveling a myriad of financial and institutional failures that plague our courts.
Director/producer Dawn Porter comes from a background in news reporting, having worked as in Ethics and Standards for NBC News. The experience would prove itself to be an unlikely but invaluable training ground for her as a storyteller. "When you do that job, you read a lot of scripts,” she says. “Eventually I thought 'Oh, I get it,' and figured out how to put together a story." She admits that even she once viewed public defenders with the same dismissal as the rest of us. "I am a lawyer, but I was not a criminal defense lawyer,” she says. “Like most people, I had no idea what you do in that job.”
Her assumptions would be turned on their head when she was invited to Birmingham, Alabama, for a training session for brand new public defense lawyers. This is where she would meet Jonathan Rapping and her entire cast of subjects. Dawn was stunned to see the amount of passion for the law Rapping and his students had, how they talked about the constitution, justice and standing up for the poor. “This is why people go to law school,” she thought to herself.
Dawn realized that there was a stereotype of public defenders that was shockingly wrong. “We don't have a lot exposure to them,” she explains. “When you don't have another example in your head, you have nothing to challenge that stereotype." She became determined to show people a different side of the story. Her film, Gideon’s Army, is a resounding rebuttal to the perception that public defenders are lazy and indifferent, instead showing us passionate lawyers who go through financial struggle while being constantly rebuffed by the system. "If you're the newest player in that game, you think that you're only dealing with one problem, being an excellent lawyer, but you're actually dealing with many challenges."
Those challenges include student debt that young lawyers incur, the low wages in public defending as well as a justice system that makes it near impossible for low-income citizens to actually have a fair hearing. “80% of people who are arrested qualify for a public defender, meaning they can’t afford a lawyer,” Dawn explains. “95% plea bargain. The rational thing to when you're facing ten-to-life when they offer you five years is to just take the deal.”
While Gideon’s Army is set in the South, Dawn stresses that the problem is endemic across the country. "It's happening all over. I could go to an office in North Dakota and hear the same story, over and over. Some places are a little bit better, but no place is where we want it to be." However, for Louisiana the problem is particularly prescient. John Rapping himself became motivated to train public defenders after his time in a Post-Katrina New Orleans. "New Orleans is definitely one of the most challenging places,” Dawn laments. “The courts are very hostile to strong defense lawyers. The prisons are too overcrowded, there are too many kids there and there's not enough money. Public defenders here are working against monumental odds."
I asked Dawn what she thought would be the most important steps in lessening the burden on those who are grinded away by the justice system. She cited two necessary changes: putting an end to mandatory sentences and bail reform. “We're not allowing judges to judge,” she says of the mandatory sentences. “When you tell a judge you have to sentence this person to this many years, then why even have a judge? We can just give it to a computer to spit out of sentencing.”
As for bail reform, she says that the high bail states such as Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia result in people who can’t afford it to spend their time in jail while awaiting trial, putting further pressure on them to seek a plea deal to a crime they may not have committed. In her mind, this leads to a system where “Your rights are being determined by how much money you have.”
Being a public defender is an uphill struggle, but their struggle to endure through crushing odds is life-affirming in Dawn’s eyes. She praises anyone in the practice for their resilience. “It's such a major sacrifice for people to do this job well,” she says. “When you have 24-year-olds who choose this job instead of one where they would make money and have a comfortable life. That's what patriotism is."
For more information on the film, visit the official website.
Rob Cameron Fowler is a writer, filmmaker and aspiring barber currently residing in New Orleans, LA. Raised in both the United States and the Middle East, he is a self-professed political junkie, cinema fanatic and purveyor of useless trivia. Follow him on Twitter.