Here's What Happens When Public Defenders Are Overworked and Underpaid

'Gideon's Promise' follows three Southern lawyers, each trying to make a difference for hundreds of defendants.

(Photo: Gideon's Army/YouTube)

Mar 22, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

We all know how celebrity justice goes: Thanks to high-powered and pricey attorneys, troubled stars routinely exercise their get-out-of-jail-by-paying-big-bucks card. But some 80 percent of Americans charged with a crime can't afford a lawyer. The legal counsel they end up with might just be an overworked and underpaid public defender.

How underpaid? You can probably guess they’re not cashing $1 million retainer checks like the Mark Geragoses of the world. Not only are these public defenders not living a life of luxury, but many live paycheck to paycheck, just like the folks they’re representing. That's what the documentary Gideon's Army reveals as it follows three Southern public defenders—Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick. The film details their struggles to uphold justice, despite caseloads of hundreds of defendants and rock-bottom salaries.

Directed and produced by attorney and filmmaker Dawn Porter, Gideon's Army won the prestigious 2014 Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize this week. The annual award recognizes a "documentary that defends the public interest, advances or promotes social justice, or illuminates a more just vision of society."

"Most Americans think our legal system operates like a case of Law & Order, with a dramatic court trial finish," says Porter. Instead of risking being represented by one of these overloaded lawyers in court, however, between 90 and 95 percent of defendants plead guilty.

"If you're looking at 10 years to life and the state offers you three years, you're going to take the plea deal," Porter says. You'll go to jail without ever receiving the constitutional protections afforded by the Bill of Rights.

The film's title stems from Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark 1963 Supreme Court decision that ruled that state courts are required under the 14th Amendment to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants unable to afford to pay for their own attorneys, and from Gideon's Promise, the public defender training center developed by Jonathan Rapping. Rapping trained public defenders for the District of Columbia, the state of Georgia, and New Orleans before founding Gideon's Promise in 2007.

Porter says she was inspired to make the documentary after visiting Gideon's Promise in Birmingham, Ala. "I was just so blown away by these young people. They were all talking about the Constitution and were committed to helping people charged with crimes," she says.

The defendants they're helping are disproportionately people of color. Of state prison inmates, 77 percent of blacks and 73 percent of Latinos were represented by public defenders. When it comes to federal prisoners, black inmates (65 percent) were more likely than whites (57 percent) and Latinos (56 percent) to be represented by public defenders. As for America's youths, 42 percent in custody have paid legal representation, putting them directly into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Only about 1 percent of inmates are in jail for homicide, meaning that the vast majority of the prison population will be out on the street within a few months or years. Nevertheless, the felony they accepted with their plea deal follows them for the rest of their lives, constricting their freedom. They can't vote, can't serve on a jury, and will have limited employment opportunities forever.

"If you're a single, able-bodied male, you're often not eligible for welfare. If you can't work, because no one will hire you—and you can't get welfare—you don't get Social Security because you never had a job." says Porter. "What are we expecting? You can't live in public housing because you have a felony. You can't get federal student loans because you have a felony. You start to see how the walls close in pretty quick."

Porter hopes the average American will become more aware of the problems with the criminal justice system and the role of lawyers, and stop trying to get out of jury duty. She also says public defenders are in serious need of student loan relief. All the lawyers in Gideon's Army have more than $100,000 in student loan debt, and they're earning less than $50,000.

"You can start as a public defender and have all the best intentions in the world," says Porter, "but as you get older, you want to have a family, you want to own a home," and you have to pay down that debt.

Despite the pay, Porter says the level of job satisfaction is higher for public defenders than for corporate lawyers. "There's the meaningful realization that you're the only thing standing between a defendant and the state," she says. Still, "the financial pressure, coupled with the emotional pressure, makes it tough to stick it out."

"The whole point of a society is that when people fall down, there need to be support systems to help them get back up," says Porter. Otherwise, we live in an America that fails to uphold the noble promise of "justice for all."