Gideon's Promise

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A Bold Vision for Justice

Gideon’s Promise: A Public Defender Movement to Transform Criminal Justice

Combining wisdom drawn from over a dozen years as a public defender and cutting-edge research in the fields of organizational and cultural psychology, Jonathan Rapping reveals the pervasive issues inherent in our current system of public defense and lays the foundation for how model public defense programs should work to end mass incarceration. Public defenders represent over eighty percent of those who interact with the court system, a disproportionate number of whom are poor, non-white citizens who rely on them to navigate the law on their behalf. More often than not, even the most well-meaning of those defenders are over-worked, under-funded, and incentivized to put the interests of judges and politicians above those of their clients in a culture that beats the passion out of talented, driven advocates, and has led to an embarrassingly low standard of justice for those who depend on the promises of Gideon v. Wainwright.

About the Author

Jonathan Rapping is the Founder and President of Gideon’s Promise, an organization dedicated to changing the culture and practice of public defense in America. He is a professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School and Harvard Law School and a recipient of a the 2014 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. His book Gideon’s Promise presents a bold vision for the future of criminal justice that goes beyond discussions of decarceration. Through collections of conversations and experiences in criminal justice, Rapping lays the foundation for a revolutionary shift in how poor, disempowered populations interact with the law. He looks beyond the financial and structural problems facing public defense in America, and urges us to confront the underlying cultural challenge before providing a blueprint to do so. His practice takes him from DC to Georgia to New Orleans and to the founding of Gideon’s Promise, which works to raise a new generation of public defenders-as-advocates through a vast network of law school partnerships, defender trainings and programming, and leadership seminars.

“A public defender movement, with a renewed vision for public defense, is critical to transforming the culture,” Rapping writes. “It starts with a client-centered vision of public defense leading to a defender-driven movement to transform systemic assumptions. That is what this book is about.”

Explore Gideon’s Promise

  • The book examines the role of culture in shaping the criminal legal system, particularly how it is impacted by our perceptions of marginalized communities and those communities deserve to be treated.
  • Rapping outlines what the role of the public defender is in challenging the narrative of our perceptions and reminding us of what justice demands.
  • Rapping introduces a model to drive culture change and references the work of his organization, Gideon’s Promise, in applying these lessons to the field of public defense.
  • He proposes a strategy to transform criminal justice culture more broadly.



Over the last half century, America’s reactionary investment of billions into police, prosecution, and prisons has resulted in over-incarceration and an extreme, unjust, unreliable system. This important exploration of the role of defenders is a vital and compelling corrective on how we balance the scales of justice.”

—Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy


“In Gideon’s Promise, Jonathan Rapping tugs at both the heartstrings and our consciences as he challenges America’s true commitment to justice. He gracefully articulates the importance of public defenders in our system of justice, and he rings the alarm at how the system is failing not only the poor but justice itself. With a clear, resonant style, he walks the reader through the grotesque abuses of some of our most vulnerable, while offering solutions that can lift us up to our highest ideals.”

—Stacey Abrams, author of Minority Leader 


“As Bryan Stevenson did in Just Mercy, Jonathan Rapping transports us onto the frontlines of the criminal justice system with a breathtaking book that will both inform and inspire. With superb storytelling, great heart, and overwhelming clarity, Gideon’s Promise is must-reading for anyone interested in social justice in America.”

—Gilbert King, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Devil in the Grove


“Public defenders are routinely overlooked in the struggle to end mass incarceration. In this inspiring new book, Jonathan Rapping seeks to change that. He shows us that we can—and must—build a world full of public defenders who fight relentlessly for their clients, partner with communities to resist injustice, and lead movements for radical change.”

—James Forman Jr., Pulitzer prize-winning author of Locking Up Our Own




“With jaw dropping stories that both infuriate and inspire, Jonathan Rapping takes the reader on a journey through the murky trenches of American criminal justice, and pitches public defenders as the unrecognized heroes who can lead us to a better place. Provocative and persuasive, Gideon’s Promise is the book a “woke” Atticus Finch would have written.”

—Paul Butler, author of Chokehold


“If we truly believe black lives matter—indeed, that the lives of anyone who has been left behind matter—we must ensure they have a voice in the criminal legal system where so much damage is done. Gideon’s Promise cautions us that these voices can never be heard without phenomenal public defenders who must speak for them. If we really care about the dignity of those impacted by our criminal justice policies, we must heed the call of this critically important book and view public defenders as indispensable to any solution.”

—Benjamin Crump, author of Open Season


“Jonathan Rapping is a true freedom fighter, heroically championing the rights of the condemned and the accused for more than two decades. His courageous and visionary leadership at Gideon’s Promise is helping to build a movement of public defense lawyers determined to fight for those who have been discarded in the era of mass incarceration and to transform our criminal punishment system into a justice system—a transformation that is long overdue.”

—Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow

A Change is Coming

We defend our most vulnerable communities from the effects of mass incarceration -- keeping families together with dignity. Our Mission To transform the criminal justice system by building a movement of public defenders who provide equal justice for marginalized communities. Our Vision  We envision a nation where every person has access to zealous, outstanding representation necessary to ensure “equal justice for all" in the criminal justice arena.