ATLANTA - Brett Wills knows two things about his belief system as a public defender in north Georgia: Either he's crazy, or he's right.
Going up against what he calls the "leviathan" of the US criminal-justice system on a daily basis, Mr. Wills is among thousands of well-meaning and often worn-down public defenders found in and around criminal courtrooms.
In a unanimous 1963 US Supreme Court ruling called Gideon v. Wainwright, the court held that state courts must appoint attorneys for defendants who cannot afford a lawyer on their own.
Public defenders should feel they are engaged in noble work. But Wills and his colleagues more often feel like quixotic defenders of a dehumanized criminal underclass.
Where others may see people who only have themselves to blame for their problems, "what we see [in a client] is a human being who is being treated inhumanely by a culture and by a system," Wills says. "But people who see the world the way that we do are a distinct minority, and whenever that's true you start to wonder: 'Is this [just] me? Am I the only one who sees things this way?'
"Burnout," he adds, "is really just burnout of a way of thinking – you're burning through a way you see the world."
How to help idealistic defenders like Wills fight long odds to make sure the scales of justice are fairly balanced is a national conundrum.
But one man is posing an answer. Attorney Jonathan "Rap" Rapping cut his teeth on defending poor and minority clients in Washington, New Orleans, and Atlanta before joining with his wife, a teacher, to found Gideon's Promise in 2009, in Atlanta.
His intellectual and practical journey into the untidy and sometimes unfair world of American jurisprudence earned Mr. Rapping a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2014. His idea – that a strong defense in court is the great American equalizer – isn't as much new as it is transformational, given the growth of his organization and of a new philosophy emerging at what may be a watershed moment for US constitutional justice.
Instead of looking at a packed courtroom as a hotbed of criminality, Rapping sees a roomful of flawed citizens who need a zealous advocate both to adjudicate their criminal allegations and, often more important, to help mitigate punishments in instances when innocence, guilt, and circumstance are blurred, as is often the case.
Given recent protests over police shootings, the real frustrations in America at this moment are rooted more deeply in a tangible sense that justice, at least for some, is amiss.
Recent events "have awakened so many people to the fact that in America we have two very different systems of justice, and people are outraged by that fact," Rapping says.
"But for every police officer that shoots and kills a young black man there are tens of thousands of young black men who encounter police, do not end up dead, but instead end up arrested and thrown into a criminal-justice system where routine injustice is accepted. They're processed into prison cells, and their lives are destroyed."
Rapping runs Gideon's Promise with his wife, Ilham Askia. They are a unique pair – he an idealistic white kid from Pittsburgh, she an African-American who watched every male in her family at one point go to jail. The organization has grown quickly to include more than 400 lawyers and 40 partner offices.
Gideon's Promise hosts classes, workshops, and symposiums, but most critically it is growing a movement with the hope that its young lawyers eventually will mature into leadership positions.
The strategy is making a difference, criminal-justice experts say.
"Young lawyers often go out into the world thinking that the rule of law applies everywhere. But the reality is, unfortunately, there are a number of justice systems where justice is a far cry from what they're meting out," says Eve Brensike Primus, a law professor at the University of Michigan. "So preparing [lawyers] not just on the law but also on how to handle the cultures they're heading into is hugely important. It requires intelligence, creativity, time, and support, and it's hard to find all four of those."
What wears on public defenders, Rapping argues, isn't as much a lack of resources as unending pressure from the system – prosecutors, judges, and even the public – to move the process along. Those left to defend the flood of defendants – mostly nonviolent offenders – face daunting odds.
In an extreme case, Miami-Dade (Fla.) public defenders regularly handle more than 700 cases a year. For some, the average time consulting with a client is 10 minutes, Rapping reported in a recent analysis.
But while defense attorneys often bemoan insensitive prosecutors and partisan judges, the American public, too, has shown little enthusiasm for reforming the system, in part because the equilibrium is acceptable. Polls consistently show that Americans have not registered that the violent crime rate in the United States has been halved since 1992; in fact, a majority believe crime has gotten worse in the past two decades.
Most Americans believe that public defenders are needed, but at the end of the day don't concern themselves much with how well the defenders do their jobs. In Florida, where chief public defenders are elected, a winning candidate recently ran on a platform of cutting the public defender budget.
State and federal appeals courts, meanwhile, have done little to bolster the Gideon ruling, accepting as inevitable massive caseloads and underpaid lawyers. One upshot is that 9 out of 10 criminal court cases are plea-bargained in a process that sometimes fails to honor each defendant's rights and introduces perverse incentives.
"This is the way it really works," says a narrator in the documentary "Gideon's Army," which chronicles the victories and defeats of three public defenders in the South. "You go to jail. You're charged with an offense, based upon what a police officer thinks you did. They set a bond. And if you're poor and you can't make the bond, you don't get out.
"So you sit, and you sit, and you sit. You may have lost your house, your kids may be needing sustenance, you may have been taken out of high school – all the things that could happen if you were summarily plucked from your life. You have so much tremendous pressure to plead guilty. It's all about lessening the penalty."
The issue has particular import today, amid protests sparked by allegations of callous policing that ends in the death of young black men – who also make up the bulk of court dockets in many parts of the US.
"The appearance of [due] process [has] made us feel better about ourselves...," Rapping says. "When we, as a society, see certain people as less than human it does become easy to feel OK about whisking them into prison cells in a process we would not accept for our own loved ones."
Wills, the north Georgia public defender, is well aware that he and his colleagues serve a critical role by offering free, but strong, legal counsel. Some take it very personally: One of Wills's colleagues has tattooed the name of every defendant he represented who lost at trial on his back.
Indeed, for those parsing the murky depths of truth in the nation's courthouses, Gideon – both the Supreme Court case and the organization – remains revolutionary, even as the promise has yet to be fully met.
"I love Gideon's Promise because that's the way the Constitution is properly viewed: It's a promise, an aspirational promise," says Wills. "And raising the level of consciousness of defenders in that way – that's where you get the bang for your buck. That's where you're going to get dividends."
- For more, visit www.gideonspromise.org