The Most Overworked, Underfunded 'Army' in American History

On Monday, HBO premiers the documentary Gideon's Army, a searing look at the ways courts fall short on the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
Dawn Porter/HBO/Vimeo

If you have a spare 95 minutes this week, or even if you don't, please find the time to watch Gideon's Army, a stomach-punch of a documentary that brings to life the Sixth Amendment by following the trials and tribulations, literally, of three young, overworked, underpaid public defenders in the South. Premiering Monday night on HBO, the film personifies the wide gulf that exists in America today not just between rich justice and poor justice but between the 50-year-old guarantee of a constitutional right to counsel and the grim reality that exists today for millions of indigent defendants.

In this sense, and many others, the film is a gift to the nation from a woman named Dawn Porter, a litigator who left her big law firm to highlight a problem of law and politics that impacts the lives of tens of millions of Americans each year. The story is a familiar one to anyone who follows our criminal justice system: the "right to counsel," guaranteed by the Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright, is today often a hollow shell, more often recognized in the breach, the victim of inadequate funding for public defenders, the over-criminalization of American law, and an indifferent Supreme Court.

It is one thing to make such assertions. It is another thing to establish them with evidence. And it is altogether something more to give visual meaning to the proof. What do advocates mean when they say that millions of Americans today do not have a meaningful right to counsel? What do they mean when they say that every day in this country citizens are convicted after "meet-and-greet" plea deals? What about debtors' prisons? The genius of this film is that it brings the law to street level. There, the tragic flaws in our legal system are not theoretical; they are not mere words on a page of a treatise or a judge's decision; they are very, very real.

The Soldiers

Gideon's Army focuses upon three "soldiers" -- Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick -- who are, it is not unfair or unkind to say, swimming in very deep water. We see them overwhelmed not just with the physically exhausting core of their craft -- investigating allegations against their clients, writing briefs, appearing in court -- but with the emotional consequences of their work. They are the ones who have to tell a mother that her son has to stay in jail because there is no money to make bail. They are the ones who go to sleep every night knowing there weren't enough hours in the day to get done all that had to be done.

We see these young people, in other words, doing all they can, often just barely enough, for their clients. We see them moving from one case crisis to another -- always juggling too many pins in the air -- as they seek to defend their clients from the power of the state. They are not heroes. They are ordinary people, patriots really, who are forced into daily acts of heroism because of the demands of the broken justice system in which they serve. It's not complicated. "Public defenders NEED significantly smaller caseloads," Alexander told me last week. "Public Defender Offices need SIGNIFICANTLY more funding."

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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