Equal Justice at Work: March 2013
Executive Director's Corner
50 Years of Gideon
March 18, 2013 was the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright – the historic Supreme Court decision holding that the U.S. Constitution requires counsel be provided for indigent defendants facing serious criminal charges.
On Friday, March 15, I attended an event in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice where we heard from the Attorney General, Eric Holder, former Vice President Walter Mondale, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama and several others who spoke about the Gideon decision and the current state of indigent defense in this country.
The common refrain was: Gideon was a seminal decision that stood for our highest ideals of equal justice under law, but the promise of equal justice remains unfulfilled. There were 250,000 people in jail in 1963 when the Gideon decision was rendered; today there are more than 2 million people incarcerated. Ninety seven percent of criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining. We hear stories of lawyers who meet with their clients for 30 seconds prior to their case being called. That's not the quality representation called for in Gideon.
And of course, this unequal justice only applies to the poor. My hero, Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said a few weeks ago, “it is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent” in America today. Sad but true.
Jon Rapping, the inspirational leader of Gideon’s Promise, wrote in a letter to the editor published in the New York Times: "if we expect to change America’s public defense system, we must change its culture. We must teach public defenders to resist the low expectations of a broken system. And we must prepare the next generation of public defenders to improve those systems."
For two years, Equal Justice Works teamed up with Gideon's Promise to do just that. We created the Public Defender Corps (PDC), which enabled 37 extremely talented new lawyers to serve indigent defendants in communities where a fierce advocate is badly needed.
This month we interviewed two PDC members, Mary Murphy and Christen Chapman, who work together at the Orleans Public Defender in New Orleans, Louisiana. We are proud to include them in our network of public interest lawyers.
When you’re done reading this month’s newsletter, we encourage you to check out a new eye-opening and powerful documentary that follows new public defenders who are fighting impossible odds to change the culture of indigent defense in the South: learn about Gideon’s Army here. For more information about the story of Gideon’s case, please visit The Constitution Project’s website and watch their movie Defending Gideon.
Public Defender Corps Spotlight
Bringing Quality Representation to Indigent Defendants in New Orleans
Recently, we chatted with two members of our Public Defender Corps (PDC), a joint program between Equal Justice Works and Gideon’s Promise. Christen Chapman and Mary Murphy are members of the PDC class of 2011, and work together at the Orleans Public Defender in New Orleans, LA. Get to know them a little better by reading their thoughts below.
Equal Justice Works: What made you want to become a public defender?
Christen Chapman and Mary Murphy: We were each drawn to indigent defense because of our belief that a person’s access to justice should not depend on his or her wealth. Our belief in the importance of raising the quality of representation for indigent defendants is strengthened each day we are in court because of our first-hand observations of how our clients’ economic status puts them at such a disadvantage in the criminal justice system. It is also our shock at the excessive penalties for non-violent offenses in Louisiana that drives us to continue to do this line of work.
EJW: What type of defense work are you currently doing?
CC & MM: We are currently representing people charged with lower level felonies in New Orleans, Louisiana. Although we represent clients charged with lower level felonies, depending on our clients’ prior convictions, our clients could be facing a sentence of twenty years to life. Such a high sentencing range even applies to clients charged with possession of marijuana, second offense (a felony in Louisiana), and other non-violent offenses.
EJW: What are some of the most common problems you have seen in the New Orleans public defense system?
CC & MM: Our office is severely underfunded which limits our ability to conduct sufficient investigation in each case, including hiring experts to advocate on behalf of our clients. Along with being constrained by a minimal budget, our caseloads can be overwhelming. We are constantly working on behalf of our clients, but we can never give them as much as they deserve.
EJW: So far, what has been your proudest accomplishment?
MM: Today I received a message from one of my first clients. He is diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. After his release from jail, our office helped him work with community organizations to find employment and a home. He wanted to thank me, by sending me a lovely postcard of an alligator crossing the road.
EJW: Your PDC membership started out with an intensive “Boot Camp” training, and you’ve gone back for periodic trainings as part of the program. What has been your most memorable experience at the Gideon’s Promise training sessions?
CC & MM: Each Gideon’s Promise training session has been memorable in its own way. Every time we go back, we are reminded of the ideal way to practice and we are re-inspired in our representation of our clients. This year’s graduation of the Core Class of 2010 was especially moving. We saw people who had stuck with this difficult career for three years and were still as dedicated to their work as ever.
EJW: Your days are likely fast-paced, handing different cases and encountering lots of different people. What has been your most memorable experience at Orleans Public Defender?
CC: One of my most memorable experiences as a public defender was completely unrelated to the law or my client’s actual case. Just two weeks before my client first went to jail, his girlfriend had given birth to their first child. Several months after my client had been arrested, he was in court for a status hearing on his case. At this point, my client’s case was still unresolved and he was likely to be in jail for several more months because his family could not pay his bond. On the morning of the status hearing, my client’s mother had brought my client’s baby to court. Normally, children are not allowed in the court room, but the judge allowed my client’s mother to bring the baby into court so my client could hold his baby. This was the first time my client had been able to hold his baby since his arrest. While something as small as someone getting to hold his own child shouldn’t be extraordinary, it was extraordinary for that courtroom. In a system that constantly dehumanizes our clients, especially our clients in jail, this small act served as a reminder of my client’s humanity to the court. Although I am not sure if this swayed the judge at all in the eventual sentence he gave my client, I do think it reminded the judge that my client was a man with a family, a life, and a future beyond his orange jumpsuit.
EJW: How do you manage the stress that comes with your job?
CC & MM: We are lucky that we get to practice in the wonderful city of New Orleans. New Orleans is the city of festivals, which means that almost every weekend there is some wonderful celebration of life which gives us the opportunity to relax and enjoy the culture of the city. It’s important for us to take time to enjoy and appreciate the freedom we are fighting for.
AmeriCorps Week Recap & Overview
AmeriCorps is a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, an independent federal agency whose mission is to improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering. AmeriCorps members address critical needs in communities all across America.
Equal Justice Works began its partnership with AmeriCorps in 1993, establishing the AmeriCorps Legal Fellowship program in order to expand legal resources in low-income and underserved communities. Equal Justice Works and AmeriCorps have worked together since this time to address our nation’s most critical needs, including domestic violence, veterans' assistance, disaster relief, the foreclosure crisis, and medical-legal partnerships.
From March 9-17, Equal Justice Works celebrated its partnership with AmeriCorps and the great work of AmeriCorps Legal Fellows and law student Summer Corps members by taking part in AmeriCorps Week. Each day we posted a blog about standout AmeriCorps Legal Fellows who have made great strides to improve their communities through legal assistance. Please visit our blog to read more about their great work.
Equal Justice Works’ partnership with AmeriCorps for the last 20 years has started the careers of more than 500 public interest lawyers. Our mission is to create a just society by mobilizing the next generation of lawyers committed to equal justice, and we are grateful that AmeriCorps continues to help us fulfill that mission. In other words:
LRAPs Can Help You Make Student Loan Payments
Public interest lawyers who need help with their student loans (and we know you probably do) would be well advised to spend some time looking loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs). LRAPs are great because they give you funds to help you make the monthly payments on your loans, freeing up money so you can pay for necessities. Stuff like, you know, food and rent.
They are particularly helpful if you have private loans because, unlike federal student debt relief programs, they are usually not limited to federal loans.
The Equal Justice Works website is a great place to begin your research. We have lists of LRAPs available from law schools, states, the federal government and some employers. These lists are not comprehensive, though, so use them as a starting point to do your own research based on your interests and career.
While you’re there, you should also check out our list of important questions to ask. It’s important to understand basic (and not so basic) items such as how much assistance is provided, how the LRAP is funded, if the funds are taxable, which of your loans are eligible, and any applicable service requirements.
Speaking of private loans, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is looking for ideas on how to spur more affordable private student loan repayment options as part of a new Student Loan Affordability Project. Email your ideas to email@example.com and please cc us at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can highlight them for the CFPB.
As always, Equal Justice Works is here to help you manage your student debt and take advantage of powerful federal relief programs like income-driven repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Don’t hesitate to visit the debt relief portion of our website, sign up for a free webinar or help yourself and support our debt relief work by purchasing our comprehensive ebook, Take Control of Your Future: A Guide to Managing Your Student Debt from the Kindle store.
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