Skip to content
Q&A

Why Transforming the Culture of Public Defense Can Advance Greater Criminal Justice Reform

Gideon’s Promise is working to ensure public defenders practice client-centered values.

Image of a courtroom.
Getty Images

For many public defenders, the job they’re tasked with can be completely overwhelming. They must shoulder caseloads that are too large with budgets that are too small. More often than not, public defenders do this work with little training and while navigating a system with perverse incentives pressuring them to prioritize processing cases over giving each client the individualized attention they deserve.

A growing number of public defenders, however, are rejecting this brutal system and calling for overhauling the culture of public defense offices. Gideon’s Promise is working to transform the criminal justice system by empowering public defenders and mobilizing them as agents of change within the criminal justice reform movement.

Arnold Ventures sat down with Jon Rapping, founder and president of Gideon’s Promise, and Ilham Askia, executive director, to discuss how reforming our public defense systems is critical to ensuring equal justice for all. This interview is part of a series highlighting the important work being done by grantees within Arnold Venture’s recently launched public defense portfolio.

Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

Tell us about the work Gideon’s Promise is doing and your theory of change.

Headshot of Jon Rapping
Jon Rapping

I began my career as a public defender in Washington, D.C., which is a model public defender office with the resources, caseload limits, and training necessary to give the people the representation they deserve. I was later invited to move to different states across the south to help build out their public defender systems, which exposed me to what public defense looks like in most of America. I would meet these young, passionate, smart, talented public defenders who would be beaten down by a system that accepts an embarrassingly low standard of justice. Ilham and I created Gideons Promise to support these young public defenders and to help them develop into the lawyers their clients desperately need.

We have a series of programs for providing new lawyers with ongoing mentorship and support both within public defender offices as well as for aspiring lawyers in law school. We want to build a pipeline to get public defenders to where they’re most needed and make sure that when they get there, they have a supportive community.

Our theory of change is that we partner with offices to transform their culture into one infused with client-centered values, so that lawyers nurture their desire to care about the people they serve. We work to groom future leaders from within those transformed offices and teach them advocacy skills so they can push for the resources and policies needed to support their communities. Ultimately, we want those offices to be engines pushing the system to reexamine assumptions about poor folks and the people they serve. We see public defenders as a vehicle for initiating a wider culture change.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

What is the difference in experience for a defendant who is represented by a lawyer from a public defender’s office that has a more client-centered culture?

Headshot of Ilham Askia
Ilham Askia

When I was 5, my dad was sentenced to Attica Correctional Facility. He was charged with things that happened years before his arrest, but the public defender tasked with telling his story never told one. He never talked about how my dad was not the person the police report was describing and how he had changed his life. And so when my dad was sentenced, it was doubly painful because no one stood up to advocate for us and to tell his story.

Nobody saw my father as a person; they saw him as a number. The system doesn’t just impact the people who go through it — it also devastates the families and communities that love that person. It’s critical that there are public defenders who care about the people they serve. They may not always agree, they sometimes may not like their clients, but they care about justice.

Headshot of Jon Rapping
Jon Rapping

Throughout the country you see public defender offices where the lawyers have become so overwhelmed and beaten down that they start to sleepwalk through the system. The lawyer representing Illy’s dad was part of the problem. Now, contrast that with the person who goes through that system, and at every turn their lawyer is visiting them and sharing messages from their family. At least they know there is someone in the system who thinks their life is valuable.

I think when a client walks into an office that is really client centered, they realize they're treated with dignity and respect. And even if the lawyer can't get the client the outcome they deserve, they know their voice mattered and that they controlled their representation. All this matters, and it’s what we're trying to instill in every office we work with.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

How can we better mobilize them to be leaders in criminal justice reform?

Headshot of Jon Rapping
Jon Rapping

We understand the role of public defenders too narrowly. I think many believe that good representation matters, but lawyers representing individual people will not lead to systemic reform. Altogether, public defenders speak for 80% of the people in the system. If public defenders collectively were to amplify the stories of those they serve, it would help humanize the system and give them an impact beyond just individual cases.

There’s a lot of emphasis right now on progressive prosecutors and more egalitarian-minded judges. I'm a fan of Bryan Stevenson, who talks about how justice requires proximity. We can't achieve justice if we're not close to the people who are impacted by our decisions. The most reform-minded judges and the most progressive prosecutors can't act on their most progressive instincts if they don't know anything about the human beings their decisions affect. This is only possible through public defenders, who are positioned to learn and tell those stories. Progressive prosecutors and progressive judges can't be progressive without public defenders. If we’re not able to see the person behind a case, it’s hard to see how we achieve pretrial justice or sentencing reform or a system where people are treated like human beings.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

What do we need to know about how to support public defenders that we still need to find out?

Headshot of Jon Rapping
Jon Rapping

There are a lot of ways to measure the success of public defenders, but we’re concerned with measuring if people in the system feel like someone treated them with value. When public defenders have too many cases, it’s a recipe for them to just process cases and go along with the status quo. But how do you measure culture change?

We found an instrument developed in the medical field called the Jeffersonian Empathy Scale, which is used to gauge the extent to which medical care providers practice with empathy. The theory is that doctors who practice with empathy produce better outcomes for patients. We used this as a model to develop an instrument called the Defender Value Spectrum to measure the extent to which lawyers embrace client centered values.

To give an example, take two lawyers who both have a client in jail awaiting trial. One doesn’t see the need to visit his client until the trial occurs. The other visits her client weekly to give updates about their case and relay family messages. If all we measured was the time someone sat in jail before trial, the two might appear to be equally good lawyers. But we want to also look at what it means to have a lawyer that treats clients with dignity and respect.

Headshot of Ilham Askia
Ilham Askia

Our goal is that if defenders across the country do that form of representation, over time, it will make judges and prosecutors see the people we serve as people instead of just numbers. The gap in the data is collecting that information and tracking our ability to transform the culture. Changing the culture of the courts is a marathon, not a sprint, and will only happen with sustained advocacy.

When a lawyer learns to treat her clients with respect, it inoculates her from the systemic pressures to treat them like widgets. Our long-term goal is developing future leaders who will resist this system and change it. You've got to build a community of defenders, who deeply embrace a client centered ethos, so that they have the inclination to engage in holistic representation. That's not automatic. That's something you have to build.

Grants

Arnold Ventures funds projects to understand problems and identify policy solutions.

Map of the U.S. made of Arnold Ventures icons