Illham Askia and Jon Rapping, founders of GIDEON’S PROMISE.
“All systems are set up to make sure that poor people in the legal system don’t have a chance. I call it the new lynching!” – Dr. Sharon Williams. Gideon’s Promise Strategic Planning Director
Jonathan Rapping is a galvanizing game-changer who is revolutionizing the practice of law and curtailing mass incarcerations throughout the nation by training public defenders. Rapping is the founder of Gideon’s Promise, a criminal justice reform organization he launched a decade ago, that led to his being awarded the coveted MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Award” in 2014. It is a highly sought-after honor for a groundbreaking program that seeks to reverse an embarrassingly low standard of justice for poor people.
“The mission of Gideon’s Promise at its core is to build a movement,” Rapping explains. “A supportive community of public defenders who not only teach these lawyers to give defendants the legal representation they deserve, but also give them the strategies, the skills, the support they need to resist those systemic pressures to go along with the processing of people into cages.”
After working with public defender systems in Washington D.C., Georgia and New Orleans, Rapping concluded that public defenders were underfunded and overworked.
“Their caseloads were overwhelming, and they didn’t have the resources,” he said. “So, they started to get beaten down, and worn out. And one or two things happened. Either they quit, or they became resigned to the status quo and they joined in on the processing.”
“Gideon’s Promise was built to change the narrative that people of color and poor people do not matter,” Ilham Askia said. “We are there to reverse this narrative and tell the true story of those who are accused, who we see in the courtroom every single day. We are building a movement of lawyers to give a voice to people who often have no voice. And that is why I left education and we started Gideon’s Promise.”
Ilham Askia is Jonathan Rapping’s life partner. As Executive Director and co-founder of Gideon’s Promise, the Buffalo native, knows first-hand the impact inadequate or no legal counsel has on individuals and families. She was five when her father was arrested and sentenced to the notorious Attica Correctional Facility in New York.
“His absence from the family destroyed it,” said Askia. “The experience contributed to her mother’s struggles to support the family, which required her to take a key role in raising her three younger siblings. She said her family never had a chance because “my father was assigned a public defender who never told his story. He never told that story that when my father was arrested he was charged with crimes that he committed years before. And on the day of his arrest, he had actually changed his life, owned a fish market and was doing quite well, but his lawyer never told his story.”
She grew up not trusting the system, convinced that public defenders were part of the system committed to locking up people, especially those who look like her and lived in her community.
“But what I started to learn is that public defenders weren’t bad people,” said Askia, who was an educator before she joined Gideon’s Promise. “They were in a system that was set up to crush them, therefore crushing the voiceless. They come into this field to do excellent work, but they have crushing caseloads.”
The average public defender, Askia said, has nearly 300 cases a year and they are under resourced. They go into the field to do decent work just like educators, she said, but they are in a system that incarcerates 2.3 million people on any given day.
Rapping and Askia are viewed as an exceptional couple doing extraordinary work.
“They are wonderful, caring and compassionate people,” opines Dr. Sharon Williams, a former Atlanta educator who is now the Gideon’s Promise Strategic Planning and Operations Director. “It is amazing to watch them work – both together and just to see them as incredible individuals. Jon just cares so much about people, and what happens to them. He is a real fighter.”
“I know that it has not been easy for them,” says Atlanta public defender Zanele Ngubeni. “I don’t know another couple like the two of them who have given so much for something that they are so passionate about. Rap [as Rapping is affectionately called by his friends] is a phenomenal visionary. There are now over 400 people who have come through Gideon’s Promise training, and who are part of this organization. You can’t imagine how much sacrifice that they’ve had to make especially for something that is so unpopular. You can’t deny he is an amazing visionary. It was such a bold thought. And, Ilham gave up everything to support this dream.”
“Gideon’s Promise is trying to put public defenders at the center of the conversation about how we change the criminal system in America,” adds author and law school professor James Forman Jr. “Gideon’s Promise is about trying to make sure that every single person, poor person, person of color, every person period has a well-trained, well supported, well networked public defender.”
Forman has written an historical account detailing how and why America has become the world’s largest jailer. His new book is entitled “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Its focus is the grossly disproportionate number of African-American men ensnared in the criminal justice system.
“In 1968, we had less than a half a million people in America’s jails and prisons. Today, we have roughly 2.3 million people in America’s jails and prisons,” laments Rapping. “They’re almost exclusively poor and disproportionately of color. We have as many people held in jail pre-trial simply because they’re poor and can’t afford bail today, as we had locked in all of the country in 1968.”
“The focus is a cultural change for public defense work,” adds Dr. Williams. “There is so much to be done there because poor people deserve justice just like everyone else. And, all systems are set up to make sure that poor people in the legal system don’t have a chance. I call it the new lynching! We don’t hang people from trees now, we just incarcerate them.”
Saying 80 percent of Americans who go before U.S. courts cannot afford a lawyer, officials from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) have announced a partnership with Gideon’s Promise, an organization dedicated to training and supporting public defenders in systems where the challenges to ensuring equal justice are greatest. This new alliance was formed the during the SCLC’s 59th Annual Conference in Memphis.
“With Gideon’s Promise and the SCLC working together, we are going to be training public defenders to represent poor people and not the government,” said Dr. Charles Steele, President and CEO of the Atlanta-based civil rights organization which was co-founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “There are too many people who go before the courts without sufficient legal representation. Gideon’s Promise is doing important civil rights work. That is what we have been doing for over 60 years. The fit is natural.”
Much as it was like for sanitation workers back in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, there are still black communities that aren’t seen as human beings because their humanity is largely stripped from them in the criminal justice system. “So as much as we have made a lot of progress in the civil rights arena in large part due to the splendid work by SCLC and other organizations, the place where I think we probably have made the least progress is the criminal justice system,” Rapping said during an interview on SCLC-TV with this reporter. “I’m grateful to Dr. Steele and his vision that if were really going to tackle civil rights in today’s America, we have to address the issue of mass incarceration. And public defenders must be a piece of that solution.”
Zanele Ngubeni was a law clerk when Rapping first came to Georgia as the statewide training director. “I knew she was special,” he said. “So, when I started my work in New Orleans and we were recruiting our first class, I called Zanele, who was graduating from University of Tennessee law school in Knoxville. Zanele was among the first wave to come to New Orleans before relocating to Atlanta. She has been a public defender in Fulton County ever since.
Zanele Ngubeni is featured in a 2015 Essence magazine story about Gideon’s Promise.
“After my first summer internship, I knew this was what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was that person who became a lawyer because I was going to be the next Thurgood Marshall. My family is South African, so I was all about civil rights. That was what I was going to do. And, once I started doing some summer internships in the area, I very quickly realized that this is the civil rights; this will be my Thurgood Marshall work. That’s how I then knew I wanted to do public defender work upon graduation. So, Gideon’s Promise for me really was my life line.”
Rapping’s supporters and former Gideon’s Promise attendees say they receive “top notch training” from some of the nation’s best trial lawyers. Ngubeni is hooked on the group’s mission and purpose and commitment to criminal justice reform.
“I am officially a Gideonite,” she said with pride.
Inmates like Terry Jackson, who is currently serving a life sentence at Augusta Medical State Prison in Georgia, dismissively call public defenders, “public pretenders.” Ngubeni argues that is not the case with Gideon’s Promise devotees who strive recognize “the humanity” of every client and force others in the system to do likewise.
“The core value of Gideon’s Promise is client centered representation,” Ngubeni explains. “We spend a significant amount of time talking to and getting to know our clients, and understanding what brought them to us or understanding what they need when they move on. We must wear a lot of hats as public defenders. At the end of the day our job is to help the one human being standing beside us. People know when you care about them. For most of our clients, that’s really all they want, that you are concerned about them and their circumstances.”
Despite their overwhelming caseload of clients and often daunting circumstances, Ngubeni says public defenders must take “one case and one face” at a time.
“To the extent we are engaged in activism, it is shouting to the world that this is a human being standing beside me and not just another number, and not just another conviction, and not just another notch in my belt toward my political ambitions.”
Chanta Parker, is a former public defender who is now with the Innocence Project as the Special Council for New Initiatives. The Spelman College and NYU graduate is based in New York.
“I’m helping the organization figure out how it can lend its voice and its brand to bring attention to racial bias in the criminal justice system,” Parker said during a telephone interview.
She has spent 10 years as a public defender in New Orleans, Harlem and Brooklyn. “I’ve seen a lot,” Parker said. “The joy for me was developing relationships with my clients and fighting for them daily, pushing back against this very oppressive state government—not only prosecutors but the courts themselves. And, I found a lot of joy being a black woman assuming that role because you don’t see a lot of young black folks as public defenders. The challenge with that is it’s a very difficult position because you are representing the most marginalized.
Black communities across the country are impacted by and immersed in the criminal justice system. Mass incarcerations of poor people of color has become such a major concern it’s likened to a “new slavery” by SCLC president Charles Steele Jr. and others.
“One in four women have incarcerated loved ones, and almost one out of every two black women,” said Parker. “That’s a lot of people, maybe not actually incarcerated but you know someone, you’ve had to bail somebody out. I am directly impacted by mass incarceration just in terms of my family, and you would be hard pressed to find a black professional who doesn’t have some connection to what’s going on.”
Ten years ago, Parker met and studied with Rapping. It was a career changing and enlightening experience for her.
“I wouldn’t have been able to be the public defender and the advocate and the person that I am had it not been for Gideon’s Promise,” Parker admits. “So, after I left that big law firm, making all that money and moved down to New Orleans one of the first things I did was to be sent to Birmingham and get this two-week training. I thought I was going to get skills training, but got so much more. It’s invaluable and really smart and innovative what Rapping does creating this community of folks who are singularly focused. At Gideon’s Promise public defenders are trained and coached to be client centered and to advocate with everything that they have for their clients, and to take pride in being a public defender. I think that is revolutionary.
She explains, “The system doesn’t want public defenders to be excellent because we represent defendants who are charged with crimes, who are assumed to be criminals, and assumed to be the bad guys. People are just churned through and incarcerated. That’s why you see judges and prosecutors trying as much as they can to run over the rights of defendants and not have an equal playing field. Gideon’s Promise is revolutionary and says no. Every person that’s charged with a crime is due under our Constitution a zealous advocate.”
Fulton County, Georgia Solicitor General Keith Gammage, applauds Rapping for being a quintessential zealous advocate. “As an elected prosecutor and a former public defender, I have profound respect for Jon Rapping and the work they’re doing around our nation training public defenders and those who serve our most needy defendants at the highest levels. I think that our system is so overwhelmed that we need folks with public interest to stand in the gap, step-up, and offer their services to those who need it. Particularly the indigent community and those who suffer from mental illness. So, I salute, support and commend the work of Gideon’s Promise.”
ABOUT GIDEON’S PROMISE: Gideon’s Promise is an organization dedicated to assuring that every individual receives adequate legal representation regardless of economic status as mandated in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Gideon vs Wainwright [355 US, 1963]. Through continuing education, ongoing mentorships and strategic partnerships; the organization gives public defenders the tools they need to provide the highest quality public defense in their communities while forging movement to transform the way we, as a nation, see marginalized populations and how they deserved to be treated. For more information, visit www.gideonspromise.org, Facebook/GideonsPromise or Twitter: @GideonsPromise