Talk of criminal justice reform always includes certain topics: the crisis of mass incarceration, the endemic racism in the system, the desperate lack of resources for indigent defense, and the need for bail and sentencing reform, among many others. While Jonathan Rapping addresses those topics in his powerful call to arms, Gideon’s Promise: A Public Defender Movement to Transform Criminal Justice, the beating heart of the book is a topic that receives far less attention: culture.
The book recounts horrifying conduct by judges and prosecutors around the country that shapes norms and bends the will of too many who come into contact with it: judges who force plea decisions or hearings or trials on people who were appointed lawyers only hours earlier; contempt orders for lawyers who refuse to proceed; and casual inhumanity expressed from the bench or across the prosecution table.
A natural question, then, is whether Rapping’s book has a place in the most rarified of that pantheon and, if so, what that place might be. Fortunately, both questions are rather easily answered. First, Rapping chronicles different stories of injustice—primarily those he has personally witnessed in his work—and we simply can’t afford to grow tired of hearing such stories until we finally change the systems that daily generate them. But Gideon’s Promise has a much more central place than just that, for Rapping himself has a much more central place. While countless persons have made innumerable contributions to American criminal justice, nobody has done more to systematically improve public defense than Jonathan Rapping, Ilham Askia, and their Gideon’s Promise.
Rapping’s thesis has always been that American criminal justice has a culture problem, something both of us have witnessed. More than anything else, what disillusioned Stephen from a career in criminal practice were the blinders—both prosecutorial and defense—that he experienced in his law school internships. While he was still sufficiently naïve to be entranced by a criminal defendant in the courtroom lockup playing long-distance hide and seek with a young child in the public gallery (presumably the defendant’s son), the system pounded away such that most of those working in the system noticed nothing at all.
In his book Rapping argues that a transformation of the criminal justice system can be achieved via public defenders. He sees them as agents of change who should not only assert the rights of their clients but also their humanity. Too often, those who wield power in the justice system simply view the person before them as a “super-predator”, a member of a dangerous class who deserves the most punitive treatment. Rarely are they considered to be a son, a mother, or a valued member of a community. So, in challenging such preconceptions, public defenders should reveal their clients as fellow citizens who are entitled to the presumption of innocence and equality under the law.
In this brief review, we situate Rapping’s work among those demanding criminal justice reform, praise an unrelated bonus, and propose a friendly amendment to nudge his vision over the finish line of justice. It will not be enough to provide newly enabled and supported public defenders to those our systems consider indigent. We ought to provide them to us all.
“Gideon’s Promise: A Public Defender Movement to Transform Criminal Justice” tells the story of how one of the most important civil rights organizations of this generation came to be. In telling this story, Rapping educates us about public defender systems, namely in the South, that have been corrupted by a racist criminal system ruled by judges and prosecutors with little regard for the Constitutional rights of those before it, let alone their humanity.
During my first few months as a public defender, I encountered a problem I had never faced before. I could not figure out how to do my job well. I had navigated jobs with perverse incentives in the past, some with success. I had also shipped my share of burgers out the window missing pickles or lettuce because it was more important to “move a car” in under two minutes than to give the car’s driver what she paid for. The incentives in the courthouse were more perverse, the costs to human beings were unimaginably higher, but none of this was new to me. It was just another machine grinding up human lives. Full Review Here
“Useful reading for anyone interested in helping to change a deeply flawed system.” – Kirkus Reviews