Last line of defense: Film ‘Gideon’s Army’ praises public defenders
Also, I think that student-loan debt policies are an easy fix — there is no reason whatsoever (not to fix them). Right now the law is if you practice (as a public defender) for 10 years and you pay your bills on time, you’re eligible for debt relief. Well, young public defenders don’t make any money. Take Travis: He says he has money for “extra bills” like gas and food. Gas and food are not “extra” — those are necessities! So freeing up a public defender after three years from $700 to $800 (in monthly student-loan payments) is a lot of money for a young person who would like to start a family.
Normal life pressures can get in the way (of being a public defender) — you want to have a baby, you want to provide for your family. It’s one thing to do the sacrificing yourself; it’s another thing to ask your wife or husband to do it too.
DN: What was the biggest eye-opener for you while making “Gideon’s Army?”
DP: I wanted to understand how a public defender could represent somebody who might be guilty. But what I ended up seeing was so many innocent people who were pleading guilty to things they may not have committed. And that was so shocking to me, I can’t even tell you. I saw a 17-year-old plead guilty to something that I know he didn’t do, and the prosecutor knows he didn’t do it. I thought, “That’s just wrong.” You think that that’s the exception, but I’m not sure it is. I don’t have any proof of that, but anecdotally I’m just not sure.
DN: It was really surprising when you showed how poverty affects people in the criminal justice system — that if you get arrested but you can’t make bail, you’d lose your freedom regardless of whether you committed a crime.
DP: The other thing is, what are the consequences of that? We followed the case of a 16-year-old kid who was walking by a broken window at a gas station when the cops pulled up. They threw him in the back of the car, and they charged him with a crime. He said that he didn’t do it; they said, “Tell it to the judge.” Except they never set a hearing to determine his bond. So he’s in jail for months and months with no hearing — which happens all the time in Georgia.
Imagine if you got arrested today, and in a couple months you still haven’t had a bail hearing. Some people will say, “A couple months isn’t that long.” Well, you try spending one night in jail — and then you tell me what you think about your kid spending a couple months in jail.
Fast-forward six months. They finally set bail for this kid at $40,000 for breaking a window and stealing some money from a gas station. He can’t make the ($4,000) bond. After he misses the entire year of 10th grade, he wants to get out of jail. The prosecutor says, “I’ll offer you this boot-camp diversion program, but first you’ve got to bond out of jail.” The kid’s mother can’t pay the bond, so he pleads guilty — and now he’s a felon who can’t vote, can’t live in public housing where his family lives, and isn’t eligible for student loans. And that last one is a huge deal. He’s a smart kind — but even if he had a prayer of making it, how would he go to college now (without student loans)?
So he’s going to drop out of high school now. What do we think he’s going to do for a job? This is (an example of) why there’s this repeated cycle of poverty.
DN: Why did you build the documentary around a small handful of cases being handled by three public defenders?
DP: A lot of times people don’t care about (issues that are too big), so a goal of mine with the documentary was to humanize this and slow down the discussion and say, “Every single person has a family — a mother, a father, a person who is devastated by the hole in their lives that they will leave.” If we just keep talking about these really big numbers, it doesn’t really matter to me personally because I can’t feel sorry for millions. I can feel sorry for one person I know, though — and so that’s why I made the decision to just follow a couple people in-depth.
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at email@example.com or 801-236-6051.