Gideon’s Army, an HBO documentary about the non-profit organization of AJMLS professor Jon Rapping, recently received the 2014 Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize. The film follows three young public defenders as they struggle with staggering caseloads, long hours, low pay, and trying to balance their commitment to public service with a criminal justice system strained to the breaking point.
The annual Ridenhour Prizes recognize acts of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society. In reflecting upon its decision, the awards committee said, “We are thrilled to have selected Gideon’s Army which celebrates the legion of idealistic young public defenders who are fighting for equal justice for the disenfranchised within our broken and biased legal system, while struggling to stay one step ahead of poverty themselves.”
Professor Rapping accepted the award with Gideon’s Army director and producer, Dawn Porter. An excerpt from his speech reads:
Now, I started my career as a public defender here in D.C. which is one of the few really well functioning public defender offices in the country. I wasn’t aware at that time about this crisis, and then I went south and worked in Georgia and Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. And I saw criminal justice systems that just processed human beings, that literally accepted an embarrassingly low standard of justice for poor people. And I met these young inspired public defenders who would go into this work for the right reasons and very quickly have the passion beaten out of them. And soon they would either quit or they would become resigned to the status quo.
And so that led to my wife and I starting Gideon’s Promise, an organization that recruits, mentors, trains and support public defenders in an effort to build a community of change agents to go into courtrooms and broken systems and remind them of our American ideals.
Well, we started in 2007 with 16 lawyers and two offices. We will this summer have roughly 300 public defenders from 15 states. [applause] As we were building this, we realized we needed someone to share this story with the country, with the world. And so we started looking for a filmmaker, a storyteller, and we met Dawn Porter. Dawn was a new filmmaker. We invited her to come down and meet our lawyers. We had no idea at the time how brilliant Dawn is. We had no idea at the time how committed she would become to this cause and we certainly had no idea the impact that her work would have.
And what Dawn has done with “Gideon’s Promise” is she has reminded us that we can’t have equal justice without public defenders. She’s reminded us that public defenders are heroes. She shined a light on the public defenders who do this work and the people that they represent, which is a critical first step to raising our national consciousness and addressing this issue.
The full video of Professor Rapping’s acceptance speech is located below.