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Director Dawn Porter has undertaken the unenviable task of shining a light on America's underclass of attorneys. Those people are public defenders, and they're charged with defending America's real underclass. Her documentary made its debut on HBO last night, and in the process, it captured some of the challenges faced by public defenders across the country. These attorneys balance heavy caseloads and impossible odds. They're armed with only a pellet gun while being asked to take down Panzer tanks. They're the sole voice for the accused in a system quite literally designed to intimidate those people into life-altering plea deals.

And yet, many of these people are among the happiest lawyers in the industry. There's something exhilarating about the fight for justice. And there's something honorable about standing up to an institution that often seeks to railroad its mostly poor, mostly minority participants in a way that's designed more toward efficiency than fairness.

"Gideon's Army" is both interesting and difficult for me to watch. That's because I have been there, on the inside, and in a couple of months, I'll be sending applications across this nation in hopes of securing a job doing precisely what these people are doing. And it's well past time I took an opportunity to laud well-earned praise on the people who make up these offices. More importantly, it's time that we all stand up to demand proper funding for defender's offices around the country.

Intro

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I was lucky. I worked at the Harris County Public Defender's Office. For those not familiar with Texas, Harris County is home to Houston, and Houston is home to some of the nation's most hideous criminal justice atrocities. Over the last three decades, Harris County has executed more human beings than even any other state. 135,000 inmates are booked into the Harris County Jail system each year, and on any given day, there are 10,000 inmates locked in cages just a few paces from courthouse steps. That figure fails to mention, of course, the individuals locked away in facilities operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - the public prison authority that too often treats these inmates like animals.

Though the challenges in Houston are self-evident, the state has also done its best to fund public defense. Responding to charges that the system of private attorney appointments was riddled with fraud and irresponsible case loading, the state provided Harris County with a grant to get a real public defender's office off of the ground. The office still only takes a small percentage of the total indigent appointments in the county, but it's helped legitimize the area's public defense.

The attorneys there are skilled and experienced. After all, attorneys must have more than four years worth of experience before they can take an appointment in Harris County. More than that, they bring a level of dedication that I hadn't seen before.

If you walk around the Harris County PDO, you'll be overwhelmed by the idealism that seeps from its corners. I've worked in law offices where the stuffy atmosphere supports the importance of a dollar-well-defended. I suppose that when you're spending your career protecting monied interests, you can afford to pretend that your work is very serious. Public defenders, though, are confronted with the realities of their work every single day. They see the best and worst of humanity, sometimes seeping from the same human being.

They'll meet with 17-year old clients being charged with a life-altering felony for being with a group of friends who stole a car. They'll hear the pleas of that child's father - a man who might tell stories of his child's special education classes to convince them that the kid didn't know any better. They'll see men, convicted of hideous crimes, thank them for their hard work, and with tearful eyes utter the words, "Bye, bye ma'am." But they'll also see men accused of robbing stores at knife point, and some of those men aren't sorry at all.

They're asked to navigate a maze of mental health issues, and in some cases, they're smacked with the reality that many of the accused would have needed Herculean resolve to escape the poverty-ridden circumstances that shaped their lives. It's this reality that almost forces the average public defender to live a little when the time in court is done. When the journey's filled with death, destruction, and an unremarkable lack of human beauty, the only fuel is a concoction of carefree idealism. It's the sort of thing that drives these public defenders to post motivational quotes on their doors. These don't appear because these attorneys are hokey cliche machines, but rather because fighting the machine day after day is just plain hard.

The public defenders in Harris County are compensated well when compared to the industry standard. Many, if not most, make more than $100,000 for their work. They have, on staff, investigators who can gather the facts necessary for a fair defense. Many of these investigators double as translators, giving the attorneys the ability to communicate with the growing Latino defendant contingent. The office features a wealth of legal knowledge and experience for attorneys to draw upon. Attorneys have been recruited from many parts of the country. Some come with long-standing criminal defense chops, while others were snagged from the teeth of the district attorney's office. In addition to its fleet of trial defenders, the Houston office features appellate attorneys who've scored many unlikely victories over the last couple of years. This office has a political presence, with chief defender Alex Bunin advocating for the sorts of policy changes that make life a little fairer for poor people accused of crimes. There's even a closet full of appropriate clothes so defendants don't make a damning first impression on members of the jury.

I'm certain most attorneys in that office would admit that they have it good, even with the litany of challenges they face. In other parts of the country - most parts, even - public defenders are asked to untrack those tanks with their fists. The average salary for public defenders is somewhere south of $50,000, depending upon which resource you trust. This, while the average tuition at private law schools has risen to more than $30,000 per year. Even at state schools, tuition is well above $20,000, and that doesn't include books, living expenses, or the laundry list of fees required to enter the field.

In Harris County, the public defender's office has the option of turning down cases when its load gets too heavy. What this means is that attorneys are often juggling eight cases at one time rather than the 15 that a delicately positioned public defender might handle. This breeds, and even requires a "meet 'em and plead 'em" strategy. Not only is this bad for defendants, but it produces disillusioned and disheartened defenders. Even those who want to serve their clients are forced to resign themselves to the reality of this field. In a legal world where sentencing ranges give the state maximum leverage in plea negotiations, the time and resources are not there to try most cases.

The lack of funding leads to higher incarceration rates and, as a natural consequence, a greater number of innocents sitting behind bars. It's another of the untold effects of the war on drugs. When jurisdictions fail to properly fund their public defense systems and then overload those systems with non-violent drug offenders, those jurisdictions force all defendants to accept inadequate representation.

The end result is a two-tiered system of justice. It's one where, as Bryan Stevenson eloquently put it, it's better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent. The government's taking of a human being's freedom is its greatest power. This is why the fourth, fifth, and sixth amendments serve as impediments to the government's power. Many states want the ability to incarcerate human beings without the responsibility of providing those individuals with the components necessary to a fair trial. This is the ultimate misuse of power, and it's time we stood up to it.

Those with HBO will be treated to powerful scenes from some of the most draconian courthouses in America. And they will see defenders willing to fight, even when fighting is futile. If our principles of freedom and equality mean anything, we will ensure that these people have the resources that they need.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Coby DuBose on Criminal Injustice, Race, and Poverty on Tue Jul 02, 2013 at 05:27 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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