Is justice threatened by over-stretching public defenders’ offices?

gideons_armyIn 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested for stealing soda and a few dollars from a pool hall.  Unable to afford an attorney, he was convicted after representing himself at trial.  Gideon appealed his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 1963, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the right to counsel in a criminal case is fundamental to the American system of justice.

More than 12 million people are arrested each year in the United States.  Most of them are represented by one of the United States’ 15,000 public defenders.  This is the legacy of the Gideon v. Wainwright case.  This is Gideon’s Army.

The documentary Gideon’s Army will be screened on Saturday, February 8, at 1:30 p.m., at Niles Discovery Church, 255 H St., Fremont.  The screening is free, though donations are accepted.  The screening will be followed by a discussion led by Will Matthews of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gideon’s Army introduces us to three committed public defenders, Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick, who are attempting to provide high-quality representation despite overwhelming caseloads and virtually no resources.  But their stories are the norm, not the exception.  They face particularly difficult challenges due to high bonds, minimum mandatory sentencing, and a culture that thinks it is being “tough on crime” by being “tough on criminals.”

According to the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, “Public defense caseloads frequently far exceed national standards.  For example, national standards limit felony cases to 150 a year per attorney.  Yet felony caseloads of 500, 600, 800 or more are common.”

Low salaries and high student loan debt cause a high degree of stress to them and other public defenders.  According to the US Department of Justice, “student loan debt is consistently cited as the overwhelming reason why attorneys decline or leave positions as prosecutors and public defenders.”  Many drop out of the system altogether, joining their counterparts with more resources and higher salaries at commercial law firms.

As a result, each year hundreds of innocent indigents are swept away in the crushing tide of a system strained to the breaking point.  As it stands today, innocents may spend decades in jail, some who are guilty are not brought to justice, and the public is rapidly losing faith in the fairness and competency of the criminal justice system.  While the moral implications are staggering, this travesty of justice occurs against the backdrop of an unprecedented economic climate where an economically-strapped nation can ill afford to spend needless dollars imprisoning the innocent.

This screening is part of the Second Saturday Documentary Series, a film series co-sponsored by Niles Discovery Church, Tri-City Perspectives, and the San Jose Peace and Justice Center.  More information about the series can be found at  The trailer for the movie can be seen at

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