Why We Need Public Defenders

Why We Need Public Defenders

September 2, 2014 | Dawn Porter, Media for a Just Society Winner

bio_dawn

When I first started filming Gideon’s Army, I think I was like most people in assuming some basic truths about our criminal justice system. I assumed that everyone who gets arrested gets a basically fair process, a lawyer, someone to advise and investigate the case, and even a trial if they so choose. I assumed someone who was innocent would never plead guilty, that violent criminals get the harshest sentences, but that everyone gets the sentences they deserve—sentences that are appropriate deterrents to crime.

When I first started filming Gideon’s Army, I think I was like most people in assuming some basic truths about our criminal justice system. I assumed that everyone who gets arrested gets a basically fair process, a lawyer, someone to advise and investigate the case, and even a trial if they so choose. I assumed someone who was innocent would never plead guilty, that violent criminals get the harshest sentences, but that everyone gets the sentences they deserve—sentences that are appropriate deterrents to crime.

Everything I assumed was wrong. 

Over the course of three years of filming I saw prisoners feel coerced to take plea deals; others, who steadfastly proclaimed their innocence, made the heart-wrenching decision to plead guilty to a crime to get out of jail. The truth is that more people are going to prison for longer periods of time, even though violent crime rates have dropped in recent years. In the United States, the number of prisoners serving life sentences without the possibility of parole continues to grow.

Not much exists to stop this juggernaut—except public defenders. In fact, 80% of the people pulled into the criminal justice system are poor and rely on court-appointed counsel. What does that tell us about who is being arrested?

For those people who happen to be poor and belong to a minority group, the odds of serving a prison term if accused of a crime are much higher than those for their white counterparts. More than 60% of the American prison population are racial or ethnic minorities; every one in 10 black men in their 30s are in jail on any given day. What does this tell us about the future of our “colorblind” society?

Unfortunately, even as the accused in our legal system are growing increasingly reliant on the services of public defenders, the services offered by public defenders are eroding due to state budget cuts and political realities that preclude states from providing needed resources to their public defense systems. As Travis Williams—one of the young public defenders depicted in the film—told me while making Gideon’s Army, the easiest line item to cut in a state or local budget is money for indigent criminals. They are no one’s constituency. In other words, even when the will and good intentions exist to improve access to resources and the quality of indigent defense, these efforts can be easily stifled.

Some examples: Communities are attempting to make up budgetary shortfalls on the backs of poor defendants. In at least 43 states and the District of Columbia, you can be billed for your public defender’s services. If you are among the 90-95% of defendants who plead guilty without a trial while using the services of a public defender, you could foot the bill for your own parole as well.

To my mind, these facts undermine the very notions of innocence until proven guilty, the right to a fair process before incarceration, and basic democratic ideals that are this country’s foundation. That is why I worked so hard to make Gideon’s Army

Public defenders are the vanguards of justice for these populations, and it is crucial that these lawyers receive the training and support they need to do their jobs and do them well. Organizations such as Gideon’s Promise are leading the charge and it is their work as much as anything that gives me hope that the status quo will change in my lifetime.

Dawn Porter is the founder of Trilogy Films and the director/producer of Gideon’s Army, which will receive the Media for a Just Society Award for film at the 2014 Media for a Just Society Awards ceremony in San Francisco, California, in October. Porter is a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center and practiced as an attorney before beginning her career in television and film.