Brett Wills knows two things about his belief system as a public defender in north Georgia: Either he’s crazy, or he’s right.
Going up against what he calls the “leviathan” of the US criminal-justice system on a daily basis, Mr. Wills is among thousands of well-meaning and often worn-down public defenders found in and around criminal courtrooms.
In a unanimous 1963 US Supreme Court ruling called Gideon v. Wainwright, the court held that state courts must appoint attorneys for defendants who cannot afford a lawyer on their own.
Public defenders should feel they are engaged in noble work. But Wills and his colleagues more often feel like quixotic defenders of a dehumanized criminal underclass.
Where others may see people who only have themselves to blame for their problems, “what we see [in a client] is a human being who is being treated inhumanely by a culture and by a system,” Wills says. “But people who see the world the way that we do are a distinct minority, and whenever that’s true you start to wonder: ‘Is this [just] me? Am I the only one who sees things this way?’
“Burnout,” he adds, “is really just burnout of a way of thinking – you’re burning through a way you see the world.”
How to help idealistic defenders like Wills fight long odds to make sure the scales of justice are fairly balanced is a national conundrum.
But one man is posing an answer. Attorney Jonathan “Rap” Rapping cut his teeth on defending poor and minority clients in Washington, New Orleans, and Atlanta before joining with his wife, a teacher, to found Gideon’s Promise in 2009, in Atlanta.