Jonathan Rapping | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
Transforming Public Defense
By Karen Rosen
When many kids his age were sitting down for cartoons, Jonathan Rapping was standing up for causes.
He loved going to demonstrations and protests with his mother, a community organizer, activist and professor in Pittsburgh. She was particularly involved in the anti-war and women’s movements.
“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” says Rapping, now a prominent legal defense advocate striving to reform the criminal justice system. “I carried signs, I did the chants and I helped make buttons and bumper stickers.
“I think while at one level I didn’t completely know what was going on, at another level that was teaching me about social justice, teaching me that when there’s something in the world that you think isn’t fair or isn’t right, you have an obligation to do something about it.”
Rapping is doing just that.
He is the founder of Gideon’s Promise, the Atlanta-based organization which inspires, mobilizes and trains public defenders to provide the highest quality defense representation.
“I always say that I think that this generation’s greatest civil rights struggle is criminal justice and public defense,” Rapping says, “and that nowhere are poor people and people of color encountering greater civil rights abuses than in our criminal justice system.”
Rapping was a public defender in Washington D.C. for 10 years before becoming training director for Georgia’s new statewide public defender system. He helped rebuild the public defender’s office in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, then did some work in Alabama and Mississippi where he says, “I really started to see just how broken these systems are. It was my first introduction to criminal justice systems that truly embraced an embarrassingly low standard of justice for poor people -- not only embraced it, expected it. You would see human beings herded into court and processed through the courtroom never being treated as humans, never being treated with dignity.”
Funded by a Soros Justice Advocacy Fellowship, Rapping created the Southern Public Defender Training Center in 2007. He subsequently renamed the non-profit Gideon’s Promise after the landmark 1963 Supreme Court case Gideon vs. Wainwright.
While that ruling stated that every person accused of a crime has a right to a lawyer, Rapping was determined to raise the level of defense offered by public defenders in some parts of the country.
He saw that court-appointed attorneys, burdened with too many cases and too few resources, were pressured to move defendants through the system quickly. This often led to acceptance of unfavorable plea deals, over-incarceration or wrongful convictions that ruined lives and tore apart families.
Gideon’s Promise is unique in that it intervenes at the trial stage, rather than after conviction, where challenges to criminal injustice often take place.
“Poor communities and communities of color are just being devastated,” says Rapping, citing statistics showing that a black male has a 1-in-3 chance of going to prison while a while male has a 1-in-17 chance.
He also says 97 percent of the people in United States who are convicted of crimes don’t ever have a trial -- they plead guilty -- and 80 percent of the people in the criminal justice system cannot afford to pay for an attorney.
“We know that this system that has relied on short cuts has undermined the process that our founding fathers thought was so important to ensure liberty and has led to really unjust results,” Rapping says.
“My feeling is, as defense lawyers, if we don’t stand up in every single case and try to force the system to live up to its ideals, we will be partners in a process that is sending many innocent people to prison.”
The best defense is often a good offense.
Gideon’s Promise teaches public defenders to work more effectively within the judicial system by providing coaching, training, and professional development.
Rapping sought to build a community of mentors and peers who could offer support and inspiration.
“Over time, you get lawyers who either quit because it’s too emotionally taxing, or they start to become resigned to the status quo,” Rapping says. “The system starts to shape them and before they know it they become lawyers they never wanted to be.”
The core three-year program began with 16 lawyers in two offices in Atlanta-Fulton County and New Orleans. More than 300 new lawyers have come through the core program and there is also a three-year graduate program in which lawyers learn to be trainers and mentors. “When you throw in senior lawyers, trainers and chief defenders, we’ve probably worked with 400 lawyers,” Rapping says. “We have partnerships in more than 35 offices across 15 states.”
Rapping’s wife, Ilham Askia, left a secure job as a schoolteacher to help him launch the organization and is executive director of Gideon’s Promise.
“Illy does this work for very different reasons,” Rapping says. “She was born in Buffalo, N.Y. and every man in her family has been incarcerated.”
Her father went to Attica when she was 5 years old and her uncles, male cousins and baby brother, whom she helped raise, have all been in prison.
“She decided to become a schoolteacher because she felt like she wanted to break this cradle-to-prison pipeline on the front end,” Rapping says. “Every public defender she ever met, she felt like none of them cared about the men in her family. None of them ever got to know them to tell their story. They never saw them as anything more than just a case. She saw the impact that had on her as a child and her family.”
Yet while teaching kids who came to school hungry, dirty and with behavior issues, Askia questioned how much difference she could make on the front end.
She realized after meeting Rapping and other enthusiastic young public defenders that it was critical to have good people at the final stop before the cradle-to-prison pipeline is completed.
To complement its paid staff of eight people, Gideon’s Promise has a committed board of directors and more than 60 current and former public defenders nationwide who volunteer to train and mentor other lawyers.
Earlier this year, Rapping established a partnership with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, marking the first time the Gideon’s Promise model will be integrated into a statewide defender system.
Rapping and his work with Gideon’s Promise are increasingly becoming recognized with awards and in national media. They were recently featured in the award-winning HBO documentary, Gideon’s Army.
In September, Rapping received a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, which honors originality, dedication, capacity for self-direction and potential. Each of the 21 MacArthur Fellows receives a $625,000 stipend -- no-strings-attached -- paid out over five years.
Rapping says he and his wife are putting the money away until they need it.
Gideon’s Promise received $375,000 from the Ford Foundation this year and has also been the beneficiary of two large Department of Justice grants. However, Rapping says the fundraising approach now is to build a private base of support from “individuals who get that the criminal justice system is not just.”
One problem confronting indigent defense is certainly funding. While the public accepts increased spending on policing, prosecution, and incarceration, there is no demand to also fund the lawyers necessary to ensure people are treated fairly. A second category of needed reforms are structural. Rapping says public defenders must have independence: “They can’t be appointed by the judges who want them to move cases more quickly or be part-time public defenders who have a financial interest in spending more time on their paying clients than their court-appointed clients.”
But there is a third challenge, a criminal justice culture that accepts injustice for poor people, that Gideon’s Promise uniquely seeks to address. It is a culture that has little compassion toward defendants, driven by politicians, judges and prosecutors who think they have to be tough on crime to get elected.
The ultimate goal, Rapping says, is changing the criminal justice narrative in America from one that has dehumanized people accused of crimes to one that treats every defendant with respect.
“We’ve got to change mindsets,” he says. “You could pour all the money into the system you want and you could fix the structure of the system, but if people believe that poor folks deserve a lower standard of justice than rich folks, we won’t have equal justice.
“We’re starting with our lawyers and changing the way they think about their role and then we are empowering them with tools to try to remind the rest of the system about what justice is.”
He adds that most defendants whose families are being torn apart are convicted of non-violent offenses. “Their children are left parentless and they’ve never had an opportunity in life,” he says. “And when we can change that narrative, I believe average people will cheer for the right to counsel, will cheer for justice and will not tolerate what we’re doing today.
“We just haven’t offered that counter narrative yet.”
Rapping believes that a criminal justice narrative that cares little for people accused of crime or those who represent them infects every aspect of society, and is perpetuated by the television shows and movies that shape our attitudes about justice.
In the early 1960s, Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was “the quintessential public defender and a national hero,” Rapping says. “We all looked to him as the model for what America should be.”
Now while addressing groups of lawyers, Rapping shows the clip from “My Cousin Vinny” where the stuttering court-appointed lawyer can’t deliver his opening statement.
He says television shows like the popular Law & Order franchise is also skewed. Rapping says the narrative depicts police and prosecutors as the “good guys with white hats going after the people that terrorize us.” The role of the public defender is completely disrespected and ignored.
Rapping knew he wanted to become a defense lawyer at a young age, another offshoot of the demonstrations and protests that shaped his values.
Friends of his family sometimes ended up getting arrested and Rapping admired the lawyers who worked to keep them out of jail.
Rapping earned a degree in economics at the University of Chicago, but allowed other people to convince him that he would incur tremendous debt if he went to law school. Instead, Rapping spent two years working as a research assistant with the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C.
He was awarded a scholarship to continue his education, but was still restless after receiving a Master of Public Administration degree from Princeton.
“I thought, ‘I haven’t found anything that really excites me other than I still had this dream of being a criminal defense lawyer,’’ Rapping says.
He decided to go to law school after all, figuring, “If I incur debt and live on rice and beans, that’s what I’ll do.”
After his first year at George Washington University, Rapping found his calling. He got a summer internship with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.
Rapping didn’t know it at the time, but PDS is a model public defender office where lawyers have manageable case loads and the resources to give clients what they deserve.
He spent every free minute at PDS during law school, then was hired after graduation.
“That’s where I learned to be a lawyer,” says Rapping.
In Washington, he also met and married his wife, who originally taught first grade and then spent two years at a charter high school for court involved kids.
When their daughter Aaliyah was 6 months old, Rapping was invited to become the training director for the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. “I talked to Illy about it and she said, ‘It sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’” he says, “and so we picked up and we moved to Georgia.”
Although Rapping handled a couple of cases, the new role largely took him out of the courtroom.
“I miss the courtroom,” he says, “but I also think what I’m doing now I have an impact I could never have just handling individual cases.”
To get the Maryland program off the ground, Rapping commutes from his Virginia-Highlands home. He is on leave from Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, where he is an associate professor.
Rapping also helps run the prestigious trial advocacy workshop at Harvard for three weeks in January.
An early riser who gets up each morning at 4 a.m., Rapping will keep speaking, publishing and expanding his public defenders’ program in the hopes Gideon’s Promise eventually will be fulfilled.
“I don’t expect that we will see quantifiable results overnight,” Rapping says, “but I think what you do see overnight are lawyers who are visiting their clients, who talk about their clients in more human terms and who think about how to ensure their clients get respect and dignity in the system and in the courtroom.
“In the heat of the battle, good judges and good prosecutors might be irritated with the aggressive, hard-charging defense lawyers. But when they step back and think about it, not only do they respect it, they understand that’s essential for our system to work.”
The mission already resonates with the next generation, as Rapping’s children, Aaliyah, now 10, and Lucas, 6, enjoy mingling with the lawyers at Gideon’s Promise.
Rapping says that when Aaliyah was 4 years old, she gave him a picture showing five stick figures, including one with four vertical lines through it. She told him, “That’s Mommy, and Daddy and Aaliyah and Lucas and we’re getting someone out of jail.”
Lucas, while throwing pennies into a fountain one day, said he wished that “all the homeless people would have houses and no one would be in jail.”
And recently, Rapping and Askia left a Gideon’s Symposium in Knoxville, Tennessee, early to attend Aaliya’s first trial. She represented the Big Bad Wolf in her fifth-grade Challenge class.
It was a split verdict.
“She was great,” Rapping said. ”She swayed them that not all of the prosecution’s case was true.”
And that’s the best defense the Big Bad Wolf could ask for.
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