20 People to Watch - Jonathan Rapping: The defender

2014 MacArthur “genius”

Jonathan Rapping wasn’t expecting the call. One night early last September, the founder of Gideon’s Promise, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that trains public defenders, answered his phone after one of his classes. The person had a brief message: Rapping would be named a 2014 MacArthur Fellow. He was told to keep it secret until the formal announcement was made two weeks later.

“Honestly, when I got the call, I figured it was a joke,” Rapping says.

The 48-year-old Pittsburgh native, one of 21 people worldwide to receive the prestigious “genius grant” last year from the Chicago-based nonprofit MacArthur Foundation, speaks with an unflinching resolve in discussing the role of public defenders and solving what he considers to be the nation’s biggest criminal justice crisis: the lack of standards for indigent legal defense.

Rapping says the distinction is important for Gideon’s Promise, which he founded in 2007 with his wife, Ilham Askia. But its value is much greater than the accompanying $625,000 cash prize. He says the fellowship validates the eight-year-old group’s legal training efforts.

“We’re teaching lawyers at every level to change the criminal justice narrative,” he says. “That’s a lawyer standing in court and humanizing individual clients. Or chief public defenders talking to constituents, judges, and politicians about what justice means.”

Rapping knows the uphill battle of public defenders well. The son of an activist mother, Rapping started his legal career in Washington, D.C., in 1995. He worked about 50 serious felony cases in a given year; a manageable caseload that he says gave him on average six days to represent each client. The office had a tight-knit community of public defenders committed to their clients. It inspired Rapping to keep fighting in the courtrooms despite the long odds.

Then in 2014, he moved from the nation’s capital to train lawyers in Georgia, which one year earlier had launched its public defender program. Two years later, he went to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina to help rebuild the city’s public defender office as its training director.

He was baffled at how the legal systems of each state had failed poor people. They both denied them a constitutional right protected in the 1963 landmark case, Gideon v. Wainwright, he says. The most egregious example came in a New Orleans courtroom, where he remembers an inmate telling a judge he had not seen a lawyer for 70 days.

He also watched talented young public defenders, entering the profession for all the right reasons, become burdened with up to 400 cases per year. The overwhelming caseloads forced them to make decisions about which ones they could win and lose, thereby impacting the quality of legal counsel received. When public defenders fought for clients, judges chided them for filing basic motions. Courtrooms valued processing poor defendants more than providing equal justice.

“You would see lawyers in a short period of time get burned out quickly or become resigned to the status quo,” Rapping says. “The only way to survive was to move a lot of cases quickly. People start to settle for something that is less than justice. You start to see systems that accept injustice.”

He heard calls for funding and structural reforms from across the South. He returned to Atlanta in 2007 and founded Gideon’s Promise in hopes of raising standards of indigent defense. To do so, the nonprofit each year has trained dozens of young public defenders during an intensive two-week program. They learn tools to better represent clients, receive professional mentors, and develop bonds with a network of lawyers fighting the same battles.

Gideon’s Promise has more than 300 alumni. In 2014, it trained about 60 young lawyers. Over the years, the nonprofit has increased the number of training programs to teach everyone from the leaders of public defender offices to law students hoping to enter the field.

The MacArthur Fellow now hopes to continue strengthening current partnerships between Gideon’s Promise and roughly three-dozen public defender offices in the South.

2015 could be a year Rapping’s nonprofit expands nationally. He’s already started working with Maryland officials to train all of its public defenders. He would like to see every public defender in the nation receive adequate training. He doesn’t care whether Gideon’s Promise or other legal nonprofits provide the indigent defense training. It just needs to be done.

“A movement of public defenders can help remind the system of what the U.S. Constitution demands,” Rapping says. “One person can’t do it. But a community of people can.”