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.
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."
Alexander says she believes the film has begun to change public perceptions about public defenders. I hope that is true, but I fear it will not be enough. The crisis in indigent defense, the continuing daily violations of the rights of low-income defendants, will not ease until judges and prosecutors and lawmakers come to believe they have a moral duty to fulfill the mandate of Gideon. And I fear that will not occur until those policy makers come to understand we all lose when our fellow citizens are imprisoned for months without trial, or forced into plea deals, or convicted with a level of "due process" that would be laughable if it weren't so sad.
As a narrative, it would be convenient if the supporting actors in the drama of Gideon's Army were unambiguously evil. But they are not. In the film, and in real life, not all judges are former prosecutors who are predisposed to making life difficult for defense attorneys and their clients. Not all district attorneys are willing to cheat defendants out of their constitutional rights. Not all witnesses are government snitches. What's so striking about the film is the sheer banality of the universal deprivation of rights. It is the machine itself, and not necessarily its individual cogs, which is manifestly unjust to indigent defendants.