Gideon’s Army: Pro Bono and Indigent Defense

gideon's armyWant to supplement your pro bono summer reading with an inspirational access to justice themed film? Check out the new documentary Gideon’s Army, which has been showing at film festivals across the country and premiered on HBO earlier this month. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which ruled that state courts are required to provide counsel to criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer (for more reflections on Gideon, browse the Yale Law Journal’s June issue). This inspirational and compelling documentary focuses on public defenders in the Deep South as they struggle to provide representation in a criminal justice system pushed to its limits.

The film tells the powerful stories of three young public defenders who are part of a small coalition of lawyers fighting for equal justice in Georgia and Mississippi. They have honorably dedicated themselves to bettering an inequitable justice system and their sheer passion and determination shines through at every moment of the film. The documentary follows the cases of two young men accused of armed robbery, who are represented by Travis Williams and Brandy Alexander. The stakes are high, as a conviction in Georgia carries a minimum sentence of 10 years without parole and a maximum of life imprisonment. Williams and Alexander mount the best defenses possible for the clients with minimal resources.

Gideon’s Army sheds light on many of the problems with our criminal justice system. Public defenders face staggering caseloads and frequently represent more than 100 clients at a time. They end up working extremely long hours for very little pay, leading to paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyles and high rates of burnout. A staggering statistic reveals the harsh reality of our justice system: a majority of the 12 million people arrested in the U.S. each year will be represented by one of the country’s 15,000 public defenders.

Sharp reductions in budgets have frayed and betrayed the promise of Gideon. Taking a cue from this moving documentary, we at The PBEye believe that pro bono lawyers are part of the solution to the country’s crisis in indigent defense. As we previously reported, many firms devote large amounts of pro bono time and resources to the defense of low-income individuals charged with crimes. Inspired by Gideon’s Army, how can pro bono lawyers address systemic violations of the right to effective counsel in criminal cases in addition to individual representation of indigent defendants?

A review in The New York Times observed that the film would “grab you by the throat,” and it had a profound impact on us. Have you seen it? What are your reactions? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!