Gideon’s Army Deserves Back Up

HBO recently aired a film around public defenders in the South. The movie highlights the enormous challenges the young attorneys face while trying to fight to keep their clients out of prison.

When I watched Gideon’s Army, the HBO-aired documentary on public defenders in the South, it made me think of the irrationality of our court system, mass incarceration, and broken families. But it also made me think of the X-Men.

In the X-Men movie series, the superheroes are misunderstood, even vilified at times by the public, but nonetheless are charged with saving humanity. The budding heroes, who already have the innate abilities within them, develop their skills at a special school to be prepared for the high stakes battles they are charged to engage in.

Gideon’s Army has a similar story line, minus the mind-melds and mutant genetics.

The public defenders from the South profiled in Gideon’s Army — Travis, Brandy, and June — may not have apparent super-powers, but it’s clear that the first requirement of heroism – the internal drive to fight for justice despite all odds — is in their DNA. The title refers to the landmark Supreme court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which cemented the 6th amendment right to counsel for the indigent. In the film, viewers get to shadow them as they scour police reports, meet with clients, give closing arguments at trial, and share personal nerve-shattering moments waiting for jury verdicts. We get the elation of their work resulting in the freedom of a young man, as well as the pain of a client signing a plea deal sending him to a lengthy prison sentence.

The difference of course from the X-Men is that the drama in Gideon’s Army is as real as it gets, and happens everyday in counties across the country — just without a film crew. Over eighty percent of those facing criminal charges will be given a court appointed attorney. And given that roughly 9 out of 10 cases are resolved through a plea deal, the truth is Gideon soldiers rarely get to step on to the battlefield of trial that they train for. That an estimated 2.5 million people are in prison now means there are millions of battles brought to the doorstep of our army, and we are losing ground.

While the defense of the indigent is honorable, it is the enormous challenges the attorneys in Gideon’s Army must face just to do their work that draws out the most admiration, that makes the film so powerful. We see images of attorneys being asked to save someone’s life, but not being able to afford gas. One attorney works in an office that doesn’t have a budget to conduct fingerprints, so he has to get the prosecutor to secure one, then uses the discovery for the defense of his client. And in one of the most poignant moments of the film (don’t read the rest of this sentence if you don’t want me to give the movie away) Travis’s client has to take a plea sending him to prison, largely because the co-defendant rolls on him and sentencing mandates makes going to trial too risky. The co-defendant holds a small baby and cries while telling the camera that he still cares for his best friend who he sent to prison. It’s just a fucked up situation.

While the obstacles faced by the attorneys in Gideon’s Army — the lack of resources, the sentencing mandate that forces pleas, the overwhelming caseloads – give us a dramatic portrayal, they are the exact things we need to challenge if Gideon’s Army is to ever be given a fair shot, and not become Gideon’s martyrs.

Any attempt to seriously challenge mass incarceration actually depends on it.

Improving indigent defense, thus challenging mass incarceration, isn’t necessarily about changing the soldiers. Travis, Brandy, and June evidence the quality of character, intellect, and character filling those roles.  It’s about changing the context in which they operate. We can’t be sending an army into a battle without weapons, training, and be outnumbered and expect them to win.

That’s why Gideon’s army deserves back up. Call in the reserves – a broad-based movement that has their back.

To ask, as Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow has, “Who wants to stop mass incarceration, and what would it take?” is a question of grand social movement. We imagine marches, system-challenging community organizing, the exertion of large-scale bottom up political power. Anything short of that would seem under-matched to challenge a historically entrenched prison industrial complex. But to ask, “Who wants to reform indigent defense, and what would it take?” is viewed as a more insular question, a technical question discussed among a small fraternity of the legal defense community — a panel topic at some lawyer conference. But as Gideon’s Army shows, asking about indigent defense is a way to ask about mechanics of challenging mass incarceration at the ground level.

What the film highlights is that in terms of the criminal justice system process that sends millions into incarceration, it is when cases get handed to public defenders that the real possibility of stopping the pipeline to prison exists. In terms of scale and potential of impact, there is no other more significant intervention point to stop someone from going to prison, save the actual arrest, than the period when public defenders are asked to mount a defense.

The Travis’s Brandy’s and June’s featured in Gideon’s Army need not be alone. The communities of their clients – their families, churches, unions, neighborhoods – would engage in a heartbeat to assist they knew those attorneys were the only thing between the person they love and prison.

Now magnify the potential movement to ensure indigent clients get the defense they deserve by all the people who watched Gideon’s Army and know the problems they saw still exist even after the credits roll.  What if they asked their public defenders in their county what they needed, and provided the political weight and created campaigns to get those needs met? What if those who held the purse strings knew they had to answer not to a singular requesting voice of a public defender, but to a chorus of a community they are accountable to?

In one scene where the attorneys are at their X-men school called Gideon’s Promise, the head of the school Jon Rapping (the Professor X of this scenario) compares public defenders’ work to the students who would come together during the origins of the civil rights movements.

The comparison is an apt one in terms of the model of frontline justice workers coming together to build their skills and community. But it is also appropriate in the longer arch of justice. The freedom summers he is comparing the modern day Gideon’s Promise gatherings to were couched in a historic, broad-based, social movement that eventually reshaped the political direction of the country. Gideon’s Army has the same potential to do the same in today’s time – if we can build a movement to allow them to do it.

About Raj Jayadev

Raj Jayadev is the coordinator of SV De-Bug and coordinates the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, an organizing model for families and communities to impact their local court systems. He is an Ashoka Fellow.

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Really loved this piece. Of all the columns I've seen written on Gideon's Army, none capture how this amazing film, and these amazing lawyers, fit into the larger criminal justice reform effort better than Raj's. Raj gets that this story is about a group of defenders on the front line of our most important civil rights struggle of the day. Below the surface of the individual stories is a collective effort to help the most vulnerable among us receive basic justice. He is an insightful community organizer and activist, and he sees this move through that lens. I am a big fan of Raj and the DeBuggers, so I especially appreciate this post. Keep up the great work DeBug!

Great blog Raj. You captured the heart and soul of the film and the work that Public Defender's do across the country. You write and amazing and powerful piece on the need to this society to adeuately support the work of these amazing foot soldiers in Gideon's Army. Both those in the film and around the rest of the country. The lives of the people these tireless soldiers defend and fight for is too important for this society to contine to underfund and understaff the work of these passionate and tireless advocates who fight so hard for the lives of the people they represent. Thank you for honoring the work of Public Defenders and issues a call to action for this society to support them the way that is required.

Good post, but to say "the truth is Gideon soldiers rarely get to step on to the battlefield of trial that they train for," really misses the mark. PDs are constantly and consistently on trial, and they're pretty darn good at it in a lot of jurisdictions. Jon's program prepares them for that, and really well too. PDs have a lot more trial experience than most private attorneys I know, and that's part of the crisis that the profession faces. Too many cases, not enough time...

I agree, great piece on the film,on the work of public defenders and the training for battle that is so critical to enabling public defenders to stay on the battle field. The one thing I would add is that the trial is not the only place where criminal defense attorneys are taking the fight to them. The more frequent battles are fought in the negotiation of the vast majority of cases that, as you accurately point out, plead. Travis' client in the film is a case in point -- the prosecutor agrees to allow this young man who is charged with armed robbery, an offense which in Georgia we call one of the "Seven Deadly Sins" because the first conviction requires a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 to 20 years without parole, or life, and the second conviction requires automatic LWOP. (Two strikes and you're out in Georgia - baseball notwithstanding). But Travis is able to negotiate a plea to a lesser included offense, one which does not carry the mandatory minimum non-parolable sentence. There are many reasons the prosecution offered so much less, but certainly one was that they knew Travis's client had a kick-ass lawyer. The criminal justice system in the USA seriously muddies the definition of "winning," but there's a lot to be said for those who stand up and get in the way of outright slaughter and leave the prosecution slashing with a pen knife instead of a machete. Preparation for the trial battle is preparation for the more common and less public but oh so meaningful negotiation battle. Great blog, thanks.

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