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Gideon’s Army, a powerful documentary film that follows the work of three public defenders in the South, provides a window into the well documented dysfunction of most public defender offices across the country. While following the life and work of these public defenders—Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick—the viewer sees what the academic literature has documented for decades: public defenders carry caseloads that are multiples of professional guidelines; compensation for public defenders is so paltry that many are barely making ends meet; the offices in which they work are resource-starved; guilty pleas are the default; and the public defenders’ clients are poor, uneducated and often trapped in a cycle of meager alternatives.

In this Essay, I want to focus on one particular issue that permeates the film and the public defender-client relationship: poverty. Eighty percent of the people who are prosecuted for a crime are poor and require representation at the state’s expense. This reality—that the average criminal defendant is poor—alters the set of choices the public defender and her client have in the criminal justice system. In the film, this constrained set of client choices is visible on countless occasions. At the same time, public defenders are compensated so poorly that their own choices are limited. Again, the film reveals this tension: even the most committed public defender has to pay her student loan bills, put gas in her car, and feed her child. Some leave the job because they cannot meet those basic needs.

This essay proceeds in three parts. In Part I of the Essay, I highlight portions of the film where the viewer sees the impoverished state of criminal defendants in the system and how that poverty constrains the client’s choices. In Part II, I examine the other side of the attorney-client relationship and again highlight instances in the film where the attorney’s own financial stress alters her set of professional choices. Part III argues that, while improving the state of indigent defense across the country requires a multi-faceted approach, there are immediate reform measures that would alleviate the impact of poverty upon clients and counsel today. In particular, I discuss the need for improved pre-trial release policies and support for entry-level public defenders. By way of conclusion, I note that, ironically, it is fiscal strain—the reality of states feeling impoverished by their own criminal laws—that may generate meaningful criminal justice reform nationwide.



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