When I left off last week telling you about Jonathan Rapping’s efforts to reform our court system, his wife, Ilham Askia, had just left her job as a first-grade teacher in the Fulton County Public School system to join him in that work.
It was an easy choice.
While Rapping had extensive experience working in the system, Askia entered from a different place. Like Sean Ramsey, the homeless man who’d been left in jail for more than 70 days for standing on a sidewalk while holding a cardboard sign reading “homeless, please help,” Askia’s life has also been devastated by our criminal justice system. Not what it did to her directly, but how it tore her family apart.
Askia was 5 when her father was arrested, charged with a robbery he had committed years earlier, and sentenced to the notorious Attica Correctional Facility in New York.
“His absence from the family crippled it,” she said. “As hard as it was growing up with a father in prison, the hardest thing was realizing that I was different, that I didn’t matter,” Askia said.
For years, she believed she could counter that by teaching kids who look like her. But she quickly realized they were all products of communities impacted by the criminal justice system. Their families were impacted by homelessness. By substance abuse. By mental health. In their communities, these problems were addressed through criminalization.
Her students were being traumatized before they even set foot in school. Before they could be healed, a more humane approach to criminal justice was needed in order to positively impact their lives.
In 2007, the Southern Public Defender Training Center, the program Askia helped her husband start, began with a three-year “core” program for new lawyers. It used training, mentorship, and community building to teach these defenders to raise the standard of representation immediately while developing into tomorrow’s leaders. Each year, a new class bonded during an intensive, 14-day boot camp. The group convened every six months and were connected to mentors and peers in between these gatherings.
But once they graduated, there was nothing to continue the support.
And so in 2011, they began an alumni program to teach lawyers who had graduated from the core program to become mentors and trainers for the growing community.
They soon added a leadership program to work with the men and women who ran the public defender offices they partnered with, giving them a community to brainstorm common challenges and to get training on how to transform their office culture internally and to advocate for reform externally.
They added a development program to teach trainers and supervisors the curriculum to help export the model nationally. And they launched a law school program to build pipelines across the nation to recruit future lawyers to public defender offices where the need was the greatest.
Soon their approach to criminal justice reform gained attention. Rapping and Askia worked with a filmmaker to create “Gideon’s Army,” a 2013 HBO documentary that featured three of their attorneys. The film’s release coincided with the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that said before we can take someone’s liberty from them, we have an obligation to make sure they have legal counsel.
Rapping and Askia decided that was the ideal time to rebrand their organization, and the Southern Public Defender Training Center became Gideon’s Promise.
“The public defenders we train are going to fulfill the promise that was made when the court decided Gideon v. Wainwright,” Rapping said.
To date, Gideon’s Promise has trained more than 1,000 attorneys from across the country.
But let’s be clear. This isn’t a one-shot program. Every six months, Rapping brings his lawyers back together to make sure their passion hasn’t been beaten out of them simply because they spend their days in systems administered by people who have lost sight of what justice demands.
That isn’t to say he doesn’t believe those people are well-intentioned. He does.
But when you work in overwhelmed systems, with pressure to move cases in assembly-line fashion, it is so easy to see the people in front of us as numbers, dockets that have to be processed through the system instead of human beings.
So how does Gideon’s Promise do this?
“I see our work in two steps,” Rapping said. “Step 1 is we have to help young public defenders remain passionate; to keep their value system from being shaped by the system. The greatest threat to justice is when the lawyers charged with speaking for the accused become resigned to the status quo and stop offering resistance. Step 2, we forge them into an army, equipped with the tools to go out and remind the system of the humanity that has been lost. It is this army that will infuse the system with the humanity that is missing.”
At any given time, there are 2.3 million people incarcerated in America. Put another way, we have 5 percent of the population but 25 percent of its incarcerated population.
Rapping believes routine injustice like that perpetrated upon Sean Ramsey is crippling our most vulnerable communities.
“Gideon’s Promise is a voice in the national conversation about justice reform that tries to help people understand that the force that fuels abusive policing is the same force that fuels routine injustice in the courts. That force is that we have embraced a narrative that says that some groups are others, that they are not worthy of dignity,” he said. “We can do all the policy reform we want; sentencing reform, decriminalizing some minor offenses, but until we truly see the humanity of the people impacted by our criminal justice system, we won’t have equal justice. We will just find new ways to control them.
“The way we come to see the humanity of people we feel disconnected from is we get close to them, we learn their stories and understand them as whole human beings. In the criminal justice system, the only way we get to know those people is through lawyers.”
Public defenders are the voice of 80 percent of the people in the system, Rapping said. If we can mobilize them to share the humanity of ignored communities, they can be the vehicle that changes this narrative.
Sean Ramsey was just a homeless man holding a sign who ended up in jail for 70 days. It’s easy to look down our noses at him and think of him as other, but here’s why we should care about the Sean Ramseys of this world and the work that Gideon’s Promise is doing.
For many of us, losing our job would mean losing our homes, our medical insurance, our security. Most of the people that public defenders represent are just like us. They are the working poor — people who serve us coffee at Starbucks, people who clean our laundry. And like us, should any of them ever be accused of wrongdoing, they are just a paycheck away from needing a public defender.
Think about that and remember our safety net isn’t what it used to be.
A month or so ago, Rapping found himself at a ceremony in which former acting Attorney General Sally Yates was being applauded because she refused to do something she believed was unconstitutional. Rightly so, she was held up as a role model.
But for the life of him, Jonathan Rapping couldn’t help remembering Brandy Alexander, Travis Williams and June Hardwick, the young lawyers featured in “Gideon’s Army,” and the hundreds of other public defenders like them who’d sacrificed so much for the privilege of doing this work. They turned down lucrative jobs. They endure incredible emotional stress.
“Every day, they refuse to participate in unconstitutional behavior,” Rapping said. “They are the real heroes. They never get awards. They’ll never be recognized, but they fight every day to preserve our democracy, which is hanging by a thread. They are fueled by the belief that equal justice can be realized.”
If you’re of the mind we can go on without the likes of them, ask Sean Ramsey. Better yet, just keep living.