The ACLU recently sued the New Orleans Public Defenders Office for failing to provide poor people the representation the U.S. Constitution demands. At first blush one might see this as a condemnation of these lawyers. But on the contrary, these advocates are responsible for shining a light on this festering injustice. If this lawsuit brings needed resources, they will be the heroes of the story.
Rather than accepting the injustice, these brave men and women have consistently demanded that the problems be addressed. Derwyn Bunton, the head of that office, has been begging for necessary resources. So he understands that litigation might be the only way to get lawmakers in Louisiana to live up to their constitutional obligation. And while no one likes being sued, when asked about the lawsuit, Bunton simply says that he welcomes reform.
It is the public defenders themselves who have forced the nation to pay attention to the crisis facing New Orleans’ poor. In one national op-ed piece, a young public defender shared the extent of the crisis facing these overwhelmed defenders. The now-infamous Kickstarter campaign, initiated by the office to raise funds to ease the burden, was featured on “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver. And when the office passed the breaking point, it responsibly declared that it could not take more cases.
This attempt to stop the bleeding should have been met with the support of those who care about equal justice. No professional responsible for other’s lives should ever accept more work than they can responsibly handle. To do otherwise puts all those in their care in jeopardy. But common sense often is devalued when the people whose lives are at stake are poor.
One judge threatened to hold the public defenders in contempt if they did not continue to take more cases than they could ethically and responsibly handle. This judge was clearly much more concerned about processing cases than achieving just outcomes.
I spent a year helping rebuild the New Orleans Public Defenders Office in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. At the time, the culture was one in which overwhelmed and under-resourced public defenders were expected to process cases quickly and efficiently. They spent almost no time with clients outside of hectic courtrooms. But they moved cases. In fact, the processing was so efficient there rarely was a judge still in court after lunch.
Since then, I have continued to work closely with the office to help lawyers withstand the tremendous pressure to process. In fact, as the founder of Gideon’s Promise, an organization dedicated to building a movement of public defenders to challenge the assumptions that drive routine injustice, I am privileged to work with a growing community of like-minded defenders in some of our nation’s most broken systems. These are lawyers committed to not only representing individual clients well, but equally committed to challenging systems that do not allow them to do so.
Ten years later, the culture in New Orleans has clearly been transformed. These lawyers resisted participating in injustice. And while the DA’s Office continues to bring more cases than the system is resourced to handle, and judges continue to pressure lawyers to process poor people efficiently, these defenders have refused to go along. Instead, they have shined a light on the injustice that had become so ordinary, and fought for a community of poor folks the rest of the system deems expendable.
Like a canary in a coal mine, these public defenders are warning us of the dangers in the criminal justice system. And while others have become indifferent, these advocates have exposed the injustice, refusing to succumb to the toxicity.
The events in New Orleans illustrate how critical good public defenders are to challenging systems that have accepted routine injustice. As armies of public defenders resist the pressure to process, and develop strategies to raise awareness about the inequities in America’s criminal justice system, they will become the engine necessary to defeat the indifference that currently defines it. A well-supported army is necessary to win any war, and public defenders must play that role in the struggle for equal justice.
Jonathan Rapping, a 2014 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellow, is founder and president of Gideon’s Promise, a nonprofit aimed at strengthening the role of public defenders in advancing justice. A former resident of New Orleans, he now lives in Atlanta.