RED INTERVIEW: PROFESSOR JONATHAN RAPPING AND GIDEON’S PROMISE
by Carlton “Cal” Lewis
Published: August 10, 2020
Back in February of this year, 2020, RED had the pleasure of sitting down with Professor Jonathan Rapping of Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School. Professor Rapping has taught at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School since 2007 and currently is the Director of the Criminal Justice Certificate Program. He serves as a Visiting Associate Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, while also teaching and presenting at numerous programs for criminal defense associations, public defenders offices, and law schools throughout the country. In 2014, he was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Genius Fellow for the impactful service work of his non-profit organization, Gideon’s Promise. Professor Rapping and his organization, Gideon’s Promise, are featured in the award-winning HBO documentary, Gideon’s Army. Since the original interview was conducted, Professor Jonathan Rapping was appointed by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta as Co-Chair of the new Use of Force Advisory Council in Atlanta. He has also created a weekly Gideon’s Promise podcast.
Your book has some impressive endorsements from other thought leaders in criminal justice reform, such as Michelle Alexander – professor and author of The New Jim Crow, Benjamin Crump – respected civil rights attorney, and Bryan Stevenson – founder of The Equal Justice Initiative and who the actor Michael B. Jordan portrayed in the book-to-film adaptation Just Mercy. There seems to be a growing focus on criminal justice reform in recent years throughout our country. How do you view the direction we’re heading toward in regard to criminal justice reform?
I certainly think that the fact that we are focusing on criminal justice is incredibly positive. The New Jim Crow completely changed the conversation. The popularity of Just Mercy certainly reflects a greater interest in the problems with the system than we have seen in the past. This makes me encouraged. But, as I argue in this book, reformers continue to look to policy fixes to address deep, cultural challenges. Until we come up with a strategy to actually transform the values that shape the system, progress will be limited.
You have been training public defenders through your nonprofit since 2007. Has this book been a long time coming, or with state governments all over scrambling to fund, or cut funds, to public defender offices, do you believe now more than ever this book is relevant and needed?
The issues raised in this book have been around for decades. We have just never seen public defenders as central to driving meaningful, systemic change. Even today, the cuts to public defender offices and the disregard for public defenders forced to carry crushing caseloads, in an environment where we are awakening to the crisis in our justice system, suggest we still do not see these advocates as critical to the solution. So, I would say both: this book has been a long time coming AND it is relevant and needed now more than ever.
This book seems to provide a blueprint for public defenders, but can the public also benefit from reading this book as well?
This book is written for a wide audience of people who are concerned about a criminal justice system that is inhumane and that strips those thrown into it of their dignity. The story is told through the evolution of Gideon’s Promise, an organization that focuses on public defenders. It centers public defenders, in partnership with the communities they serve, in the solution. But it offers a culture change model that can, and must, be applied beyond public defense. It provides a model to transform the values that drive judges, prosecutors, legislators, and all other criminal justice actors.
Your nonprofit is named the same as this book, Gideon’s Promise. However, it was first called the Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC). What is the significance behind the name, Gideon’s Promise?
My expertise is in training public defenders, not branding. So when I first named the organization, I was perhaps a bit too literal. We were an organization that trained public defenders in the South. But the name was problematic for a few reasons. First, it suggested that training is all we do. In fact, we are building a movement of public defender to transform criminal justice. Training is just one tool we use. Second, while we started in the South, we have since expanded to work with public defenders across the country. In fact, we have partnerships in more than half the states. Finally, no one could say SPDTC. It was an awful name. So in 2013 we rebranded. We wanted a more aspirational name. Gideon v Wainwright was the case that created the right to a public defender in 1963. It made clear that only through a public defender could a person without means access justice. It made a promise to ensure every person is treated consistent with justice in the courts and the defender was the vehicle to ensure that happened. The promise of Gideon has never been fulfilled. The defenders we are developing will make that promise a reality. Collectively, they are Gideon’s Promise.
A number of well-respected and well-known criminal attorneys started off as public defenders. In fact, you yourself was a public defender for years. What was that experience like? Were your experiences working there a driving reason for the start of your nonprofit, and now the authoring of this book?
My experience as a public defender has everything to do with the non-profit and the book. As I explain in the book, I began my career in Washington DC, one of the few offices that had the resources, independence, and support to allow public defenders to give every client what they deserved. I moved to Georgia to help build its new statewide public defender system in 2004. It was only my experience in DC that helped me appreciate the cultural issues that were shaping young defenders in Georgia. The system was beating the passion out of them and forging them into lawyers who were pressured to help maintain the status quo. I then went to New Orleans and saw the same thing. I saw it in Alabama and Mississippi. My experience in DC gave me the perspective to believe the culture could be changed and to start an organization to do just that. The book is really the story of these experiences and the obvious solutions that flow from them.
(Follow up from #5) What were the things you witnessed as inadequate in the training and preparation of public defenders within our criminal justice system?
When public defenders have too many cases, too few resources, and structural challenges that incentivize them to prioritize the needs of judges and funders over clients, they can learn to take shortcuts. It is easy to become resigned to the status quo. Rather than push back against the system, defenders can help perpetuate it. This leads to a culture that prioritizes efficiency over justice; that starts to see human beings as case files. Without training and support to resist these cultural pressures, even well-intentioned lawyers can become part of the problem. The book has many examples of this.
How critical of a role do public defenders play in our criminal justice system?
Public defenders are the key to our criminal justice system. They represent 80% of the people accused of crimes. There are some bad actors in the system who look for ways to cheat. Public defenders are the ones who are charged with ferreting out the cheaters and shining a light on places where the system does not work as it should. There are also many well-intentioned actors in the system who have lost sight of the human beings behind the case files. In the rush to clear dockets, judges and prosecutors can come to see people as merely cases to be processed. It is the public defender who must learn the stories behind each person, tell those stories, and infuses the system with that humanity. Even the best-intentioned judges and prosecutors cannot make just decisions about people if they do not know the person who they are judging. They only know the person through a committed public defender.
In the community, in particular low socioeconomic communities who mostly require the representation of public defenders, there seems to be a neutral, if not negative, perception of public defenders. Why is that? And, is it justified, or does the public lack understanding of this position?
Let me start by saying that I think public defenders are heroic. But, certainly in many instances it is justified. Not because the public defenders are not dedicated and talented. But, because when you give even the best lawyer 300 cases, that defender has to engage in triage. They have to quickly dispose of many cases to focus on a few. People know they are not getting the attention they deserve. They assume that is because the lawyer does not care, is incompetent, or is part of the system working against them. That perception may be wrong, but it is real. It can spill over to taint the public perception of even the best public defenders. As public defenders, one of the most important things we can do is to change that perception and work with communities to make sure they see us as allies rather than enemies. Again, more on this in the book.
An organization Gideon’s Promise is partnered with, the Office of The Ohio Public Defender, has been highlighted by Ohio state lawmakers on a bill proposal that is currently in the Ohio Senate Finance Committee. The bill proposal is seeking to help law school graduates who become public defenders with paying their law school debt back. Tim Young, director of the Office of the Ohio Public Defender said on the matter, “We’re having a hard time with public defenders staying on the job, and almost all of them universally report they’re leaving for more money.” And, if this bill is voted in, do you believe this will help retain and improve the office of the public defender?
Absolutely! Look, money is not the only issue facing public defenders. It takes an emotional toll on a person to work in a system every day that treats the people you represent – people you care about deeply – so inhumanely. It is hard to get close to injustice and not have it affect you deeply. More money alone won’t change that cultural challenge. But, to pile on top of that the inability to pay rent, go on vacation, hang out with friends, save a bit – it can make it impossible to stay. Programs like Gideon’s Promise can do a lot to address the first challenge. But even if we do that, we have to make sure people can earn a livable wage. Otherwise, you will only attract people who do not care about the people they represent and who are willing to process cases. Loan forgiveness and a reasonable salary are critical to attracting and retaining the best lawyers. There is no more important work in the legal profession, so we should strive to attract the best lawyers.
As we and most of our supporters reside in the state of Georgia, I want to ask you about Governor Kemp’s proposed budget cuts to public defender offices (At the time, Georgia Governor Kemp of Georgia was pushing to defund the public defender’s office while still being tough on crime). Even though it appears to have been rejected and will be amended as of today, I’m not sure if our audience quite understood the possible ramifications that would have resulted had this been passed. Do you mind elaborating on the impact on public defender offices across the state of Georgia had this budget cut been approved?
The 3-million-dollar budget cut would have mostly impacted the ability to fill vacant positions, effectively reducing the number of lawyers available to represent people. Obviously, this means already overburdened public defenders now have to find a way to take one even more cases meaning more Georgians will be deprived the critical right to counsel promised in Gideon. To make matters worse, the cuts were to be accompanied by an increase to prosecutors, allowing them to charge even more cases at a time that public defender staffs are being reduced. It is irresponsible in a nation that values liberty to increase the power of the state while decreasing the ability of citizens to fight back. It looks like the cuts won’t happen. But, the proposal still speaks volumes about how this administration feels about the importance of public defenders and the commitment to ensuring those without means receive real justice.
The beginning of the year is the time for state budget proposals. We can see two sides of the coin when we look at the states, Ohio and Georgia. On one hand, Ohio is proposing funding and incentivizing their public defender office even more than in the past, and on the other hand, the Governor of Georgia was attempting to cut almost $3 million from its own public defender’s office. In your opinion, as it stands, are public defender offices, in general, adequately funded?
Short answer…No! Gideon was a case about equal justice. The lawyer was deemed necessary to ensure justice. If we believe in equal justice, what kind of lawyer should the most vulnerable receive? That is a rhetorical question …. the same kind those of us with means would pay for. Yet all across the nation public defenders are forced to plead people guilty to crimes without the time to conduct investigation or do the most basic legal research. Frequently, public defenders know very little about the person they represent. If you walked into a lawyer’s office with a criminal charge and the lawyer said to you, “I have good news for you, I have one day I can give you this year … it’ll cost you 20 thousand dollars,” you would leave. Yet, that is all most poor people get. Sometimes even less than that. In extreme cases, some public defenders have been found to only give clients a few minutes. As these practices become normalized a culture develops that must be transformed in order to have meaningful reform.
At RED (Rehabilitation Enables Dreams, Inc.), a part of our curriculum- the Know Your Rights module, educates our participants on current laws, so they can effectively interact with law enforcement. As a former public defender, is it helpful to have a defendant’s case who is knowledgeable of the law?
Certainly, representing a person who understood their rights well enough to avoid mistakes in their interaction with police that could make their case more difficult is incredibly helpful. For example, a person who knows not to make statements to the police that might be used as evidence against them or who knows they are not required to consent to a search will be in a much better position should they be arrested.
As a general matter, when a person has an understanding of the system and how it works, they may be less suspicious of their public defender, who they may not have any reason to trust initially. This can help facilitate the attorney-client relationship and avoid misunderstandings that can breed tension in the relationship.
(for fun) This is more for my personal curiosity and our audience than anything else: You taught RED’s founder, David Lee Windecher, in law school, did you not? No luck in talking him into becoming a public defender, huh? Haha.
I never tried to talk David into becoming a public defender. He had a very strong sense of what he would do with his degree based on his remarkable personal experience. I could not be more supportive. Public defenders need allies like David and organizations like RED.
If you met a law school student who may be interested in pursuing public defense work, what advice and insight would you offer to them?
First, take advantage of opportunities to really understand what it means to be a public defender. Intern with public defenders you admire. Watch lawyers who are both good and not good to see how the quality of lawyering impacts justice. Look for offices that have leaders who share your values, so you are supported when you try to push back against an unjust system. And, most importantly, be clear about your purpose when you come to law school and find ways to hold onto it. A lawyer without a purpose is a tragic thing.
You started off conducting a training program in 2 public defender offices, and now you work with over 100 offices all over the country. Have you seen a change in the public defender office from when your first started up to now? If so, what? And, what are your hopes for public defender offices moving forward?
We have absolutely seen tremendous change in the offices we have worked with for a while. But change is slow. Changing culture takes a lot of patience and persistence. Our partner offices work in environments that have embraced a narrative that sees people accused of crimes as dangerous and subhuman. Public defenders must resist that narrative every day while pushing back against it at the pace the system can handle. I hope that we get to the point that every public defender office in America has the value-set, resources, and independence to give every person they represent the kind of representation any of us would want for our loved ones. But that requires that our nation learn to see every life as valuable and to truly value public defenders who give our most marginalized communities voice. We need a movement of reformers to prioritize public defense in this larger effort to reform criminal justice. But we cannot value public defenders until we truly value the communities they serve.
When and where will the book be available for purchase and/or pre-order?
The publishing date is Tuesday, August 18, 2020, but it is available for pre-order NOW onAmazon, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, and my publisher, Beacon Press, as well as any place where books are sold. We are in the midst of a “pre-order” campaign where a portion of all proceeds from pre-order sales will go to Gideon’s Promise. So buy a copy for yourself, and for anyone you know who cares about justice, and help us support public defenders!