The People's Court - Why Community Organizing Is the Way to Realize Gideon's Promise

Next week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions this country’s criminal justice system has ever known – Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), which guaranteed criminal defendants the right to a defense attorney regardless of their ability to pay.

Illustration by: Adrian Avila

Yet half a century after the Gideon case, the right to effective representation for all still remains an unfulfilled promise. Today, public defenders, who handle 80 percent of all criminal cases, all too often forego effective representation for lack of time and resources. Nine out of 10 of all criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains. Every day in courtrooms across the country, cases are resolved by two-minute introductory flyby conversations between public defenders and their clients, with no discussion – much less implementation – of an adequate defense strategy. Defense attorneys for the indigent often appear in court without knowing their client's names.

As a community organizer in the criminal courts of California, I have come to realize that the solution to making Gideon effective isn't more lawyers. It lies in more direct engagement by defendants and their communities. Community organizing that intervenes on behalf of the defendant can be a potent antidote to the lack of equal justice, shift the balance of power in the courts, and bring to life the constitutional protections of Gideon.

While communities organize for improvements in other public services – under-resourced schools, potholes in the street, even police misconduct – that organizing strength is rarely flexed in the context of the courts. Part of this is due to the perception that the law is for only lawyers. But that’s like saying our health care system should only be discussed by doctors. And that relinquishing of power only allows the system to stay the same. 

When communities step up to demand more of their public defenders and courts, they get results.

Through an organizing model called the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, which supports directly impacted communities in holding their local criminal justice system accountable, I have seen concerned family members with no legal training exercise their rights and change the outcomes of their loved ones’ case. We work with communities all over California, but our basic model is applicable anywhere there is an indigent defense office, and a community they serve. The outcomes are real. 

Take the example of one of our members, Martha, a 22-year-old San Jose resident who was tased in her front yard by police who claimed she was being belligerent. She was charged with with resisting arrest, a charge many plead to because it usually boils down to the defendant’s word versus a police officer. 

Martha, frozen by fear, came to see us the next day. We connected with her family and neighbors who had witnessed the event, and recorded video testimonies of what they saw. Rather than wait to meet her court-appointed attorney at the first court date, through our support process, she reached out to the Public Defender’s office supervisor and requested a meeting with the attorney who would be assigned to her case. She showed the attorney the impact the charge would have on her life, her family and community, and gave the attorney the video of witness statements proving her innocence. Her public defender transcribed the video, and was able to get the case dismissed. That outcome occurred because Martha and her family actively partnered with her attorney. It could happen a lot more if communities knew they can do the same. 

Through this kind of community organizing approach, other families we work now review police reports and court transcripts, provide context of community members, and meet with public defenders in their office – rather than meeting them for two minutes in a court hallway right before a hearing. The families, who are going through some of the most stressful moments in their lives, meet regularly to support each other. They press their attorneys to conduct thorough investigations, file motions to get cases dismissed and meet more often with their detained clients to review discovery and get their input. By sharing the model with other community organizations and religious institutions – often the places people first go to in a time of crisis like getting arrested – we have seen hundreds of cases each year impacted by an active partnership between the defendant, the community and the court-appointed attorney.

Of course, our approach wasn’t embraced by all public defenders at first. Some told us we shouldn’t be “watchdogging” their work. But over time, many have come to value the partnership, and now even approach us to connect us with their clients’ families. 

They will ask a family to work with us to create a mitigation packet of support letters and family photos to convince a judge to chose a drug rehab program rather than a prison commitment, for example. Or they will call to see if we have community experts that can refute a claim by a prosecutor that a neighborhood has gang activity. Sometimes, just having community in the court is what the public defender needs to win over a judge or jury. A packed courtroom shows that the defendant is part of a community that is invested in his or her well-being, rather than a lone individual no one cares about. 

Last year, we worked with public defenders to show prosecutors why adding gang enhancements, which dramatically increase prison sentences, to graffiti charges was an overly excessive charging practice. This year, we are working with public defender offices to create policies that would protect the rights of their immigrant clients, and our community members, from deportations through the criminal court system. Those examples of community partnerships can improve the context of which attorneys do their work, and gives their clients a fairer fight in the courtroom. 

If I could give Americans a single recommendation to restore the power of Gideon, it would be this lesson: The right to counsel does not exist in a vacuum. It happens amid local landscapes of tough-on-crime politics, demand for higher conviction rates, and overwhelming caseloads for public defenders. Those environments will only change if public defenders’ offices have enough political weight to influence local decision-makers when it comes time to allocate resources or set policy. And that political power can only come from the clients and their communities.

Now when I drive by the courthouse and look at the line of people waiting to get in for their court date, I don’t see defendants. I see organizers. I think about the families, friends, co-workers, religious affiliations and community groups of all of those people – and imagine the powerful movement they could be harnessed to ultimately bring fairness to the court system. Like Clarence Earl Gideon himself, they aren’t lawyers. But they are still the agents of change who can deliver on the promise of his historic case.

About Raj Jayadev

Raj Jayadev is the coordinator of SV De-Bug and coordinates the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, an organizing model for families and communities to impact their local court systems. 

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