Dawn Porter is the director of “Gideon’s Army,” a documentary about public defenders — attorneys who represent criminal defendants too poor to hire their own lawyers.
The film’s title is a reference to the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which essentially created the job of public defender by requiring state and federal governments to provide competent legal representation for indigent people facing criminal charges. There are about 15,000 public defenders in the United States, and this year they will take on more than 5 million cases.
“Gideon’s Army” premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and will air on HBO this summer. The same week the documentary debuted, the New York Times website posted “True Believers in Justice,” a six-minute video Porter created with exclusive footage of two of the principal attorneys from “Gideon’s Army.”
Porter — who used to work as an attorney for ABC Television Networks — recently sat down with the Deseret News in Park City to discuss “Gideon’s Army,” as well as social issues relevant to the work of public defenders, such as mandatory minimum sentencing and generational poverty.
Deseret News: In terms of public defenders like the ones you follow in “Gideon’s Army,” what is the most important thing you think people should know?
Dawn Porter: I want them to know what great lawyers these young people are. There are public defenders that are fabulous. If I went to jail, I would want Travis Williams (a public defender in Georgia) defending me. I would trust my life with Travis; I would trust my child’s life with Travis.
There is a hierarchy and snobbishness in the law that I think is destructive. A Wall Street job or a firm job is the sought-after prize, and yet these young (public defenders) are great. But they’re not getting any attention because they’re not at these prestigious schools and they’re not doing these jobs that are soul-sucking. People assume we reserve our best talent for high-paying clients, and it’s not true at all.
Another thing is just how deeply emotional and committed they are to their work. Most people assume public defenders hold their noses and defend their clients, (but) public defenders embrace their clients, and it breaks them apart when their clients go to prison.
DN: What are some practical changes you think would improve the criminal justice system?
DP: I think minimum mandatory sentencing is absurd and inhumane. I think the point of a judicial system is to bring justice and wisdom, and I think having a one-size-fits-all sentence is just crazy. In Louisiana if you have a drug conviction that’s a first felony, (the) second drug conviction is mandatory five years in prison — doesn’t matter how much drugs you have — (and the) third drug conviction is mandatory life in prison. Mandatory life — how does that keep anybody safe? All it’s doing is filling up prisons with people, breaking up families and creating a cycle of poverty.
I am not a person who thinks nobody should go to prison — I do think people should be punished, but I think it should be done deliberately and knowingly and fairly. I think minimum mandatories are a big problem and we should look at them and say, “Is that what we really meant to happen?”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-236-6051.