HBO Show: Criminal Defense of the Poor Is a Fiasco [Video]
HBO Documentary Gideon’s Army
“We don’t see a lot of happily ever afters in this profession, but hopefully we get us a happily ever after,” says Brandy Alexander, one of three public defenders from the deep South, whose stories are told in a new HBO documentary called “Gideon’s Army.”
Videojournalist Ed Alpern takes Lawyers.com viewers behind the scenes of this film to show how America’s criminal defense system for the impoverished is in shambles and needs to be repaired.
“This is the way it really works. You go to jail,” says Brett Willis Senior Public Defender, Hall County, Georgia.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Calls for Change
The documentary, produced and directed by Dawn Porter shines a light on an issue that even the U.S Attorney General calls a mess.
“In short, America’s indigent defense systems exist in a state of crisis,” say Eric Holder.
Things haven’t turned out quite the way the Supreme Court envisioned in 1963, when it decided a case granting a penniless Florida inmate named Clarence Earl Gideon the right to an attorney, provided and paid for by the court.
“I think that most people don’t understand what public defenders do, in some cases what public defenders are,” says Porter. She was a corporate attorney before spending three years making the film. It’s a look at both the professional and personal side of doing the job.
“He is a kid, and he’s facing a lot of time, if he’s found guilty it will break him,” says Alexander in the documentary, referring to of one of the clients she’s defending.
Eighty percent of people who are arrested are eligible for a public defender. Ninety-five percent of those people plead guilty. So there’s only five percent of cases that are coming into the system that are going to trial. When you think about that, the overwhelming number of people who are pleading guilty are poor people.
Overworked Public Defenders Do Their Best
It’s a scenario that some call “meet ‘em and plead ‘em.” For instance, in New Orleans, it’s estimated public defenders have seven minutes to spend on each case.
“As I’ve made my objections throughout the trial, it’s to make sure that this kid gets a fair trial,” says Travis Williams, a public defender in Gainesville, Georgia.
There are 15,000 public defenders like Travis Williams, working in local and federal courts. National standards are supposed to limit felony cases to 150 per attorney per year. Yet caseloads of 500,600 or 800 are common. And there are economic pressures at work, too.
“What invariably happens, as the economy contracts, the public defenders funding contracts as well,” says Porter.
Changes in the Law Lie Ahead
She believes that one of the solutions to the indigent defense crisis lies in the new sentencing guidelines recently announced by Attorney General Eric Holder.
“Too many Americans, go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good criminal justice reason,” says Holder.
Reducing minimum mandatory sentences could reduce defender caseloads. The ranks of Gideon’s Army are too thin, the public defenders are poorly paid, their daily battles are difficult, and the lives of those they represent are at stake. But perhaps the most compelling war stories that the documentary tells are those of the toll the system takes on its foot soldiers.
“I cannot fathom, turning around to his mother, after a jury has said guilty and I’ve told her, he’s going to get 10 years, at least,” says Alexander.