Fifty-one years ago, the Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainright ruled that every American accused of a crime is entitled to an attorney. But today public defenders are overworked and underpaid, often burning out and leaving the job shortly after they start, according to Jonathan Rapping, the founder of an organization that helps to prepare lawyers for a career as a public defender.
Rapping, the founder of the Atlanta-based public defender organization Gideon's Promise, believes that the poor working conditions for public defenders can result in a lack of legal representation for the country's most vulnerable citizens. As a consequence, Rapping says, criminal justice systems across the country have "come to accept embarrassingly low standards of justice for poor people."
Rapping told The Huffington Post that these structural flaws are taking their toll on even the most inspired lawyers.
"I would meet young passionate public defenders who wanted to make a difference," Rapping told The Huffington Post. "They would go in with crushing caseloads, and the systems would beat the passion out of them. They would either quit or become resigned to the status quo."
Rapping spent 10 years working as a public defender in Washington, D.C. Seven years ago, he founded Gideon's Promise, an organization that by his count has trained more than 250 public defenders to help fill the void left by poorly funded and overburdened public defenders' offices.
Now Rapping is about to embark on a speaking tour to raise awareness of shortcomings in the criminal justice system, and to raise funds to help fix them.
"There's something terribly broken about our criminal justice system all across our country," Rapping said. "If you go back 51 years ago, the Supreme Court said the only way we can make sure there is equal justice is to make sure there is equal representation."
Rapping said public defenders' offices are easy targets in an economic and political climate that prioritizes budget cuts. Rhoda Billings, a former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, speaking to the Associated Press last year, identified 18 states that pass along the costs of public defense to their counties.
But, Rapping said, the results of de-emphasizing or underfunding criminal defense for the indigent can be devastating, especially on a society in which 80 percent of defendants qualify for a public defender.
"The people going through the system aren't some distant community of demons or monsters or others," Rapping said. "They are the people who bag their groceries, or make them a cappuccino at their local coffee bar. They are our neighbors, and we should treat them like people we care about."
Rapping said that in some circumstances, innocent people will plead guilty because they see their situation as lose-lose. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, as many as 95 percent of cases are settled outside of a courtroom in plea deals, many intended simply to clear case backlogs and keep the system churning along.
"People are given money bonds that they can't afford. They're given a plea that day and they're told, 'If you take the plea, you can get out, or you can sit in jail on a bond that you can't make,'" Rapping said. "Plenty of people faced with that decision of, 'Am I going to see my family or keep my job?' -- they will plead guilty without being able to challenge the allegations against them."
"Forcing people to plead guilty has become a way of providing justice to poor people," Rapping added. "That is something we are building a generation of lawyers to stand up to."