It would be too simplistic and a disservice to say that the release of Jonathan Rapping’s compelling new book, “Gideon’s Promise: A Public Defender Movement to Transform Criminal Justice,” is a case of serendipity.
The book serves as an oasis within a hardened sociopolitical landscape punctuated by heightened racial animus and a biological catastrophe the likes America hasn’t seen since the Spanish Flu outbreak 100 years ago.
The confluence of mutually agreeable circumstances, brought on by the crippling coronavirus pandemic and the national insurrection that hatched from the horrific on-camera death of George Floyd, has made Rapping’s book release at this time very fitting.
“I would say the book is incredibly timely because it focuses on our criminal legal system and the role it plays in really crushing marginalized communities in America, disproportionately, those are black and brown communities,” Rapping said. “I have been a public defender working with public defenders my entire career, and always saw public defenders as central to that fight; as critical players in that battle.”
Rapping, who serves as a professor at the John Marshall Law School in Atlanta and at the Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., remains a public defender, which he has done his whole career. It is his raison d’être.
His book, “Gideon’s Promise,” is an extension of the organization he founded, also called Gideon’s Promise, which teaches public defenders to work more effectively within the judicial system by providing coaching, training, and professional development. It is like the boot camp for lawyers to better defend indigent populations being devoured by the prison-industrial complex.
“We have a half a million people, on any given day, who are housed in jails, simply because they cannot afford bond. They can’t afford to get out even though they haven’t been convicted of anything,” Rapping said. “And we are realizing during this pandemic that those jails have become death traps.”
This concept starkly contradicts the oft-regurgitated theme that Lady Justice is blind and therefore is supposed to apply the law equally irrespective of demographics. Most know that this has always been far from the truth.
“Not only can Lady Justice see, Lady Justice only looks for certain populations. From the moment that Lady Justice decides who to monitor, who to police, who to control, where resources are concentrated — in poor communities, disproportionately communities of color — to decisions that Lady Justice makes, about who to charge and what to charge them with, how to treat them once they’re convicted. Not only is Lady Justice not blind, Lady Justice targets certain populations in this in this society.”
Perhaps no other time in modern American history, sans the Civil Rights Movement, has this harsh reality been so vividly exemplified.
Gideon’s Promise, Rapping explained, widens the parameters of this ultra-important discussion from incarceration to providing a new paradigm and framework for how “poor, disempowered populations” interact with the American judicial and penal systems.
“A public defender movement, with a renewed vision for public defense, is critical to transforming the culture,” Rapping penned in his book. “It starts with a client-centered vision of public defense leading to a defender-driven movement to transform systemic assumptions.”
Furthermore, the media has noted that some cities, along with the federal government, have begun to criminalize activism. Such has been the case of federal police being dispatched to cities like Portland and Seattle in order to “restore order,” crush dissent and neutralize the Black Lives Matter leadership — and throw them in jail with exorbitant charges.
“As the nation has focused on criminal justice reform over the last few years, public defenders have been a really important piece that has been ignored. It’s been left out,” Rapping said. “So I really wrote ‘Gideon’s Promise’ to center public defenders, and the communities they serve, in this fight for racial justice and economic justice. And I think, as you point out, this moment could not be a more illuminating moment for the thesis of the book.
Because of the great turbulence currently raging in America, Rapping said he believes “we have a heightened awareness of racial oppression at the heart of our society, certainly at the heart of our criminal legal system.”
And this has brought a heightened awareness of the need for strong public defense as Rapping eloquently illustrates in the book “Gideon’s Promise.”