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Filmmaker Dawn Porter Screens ‘Gideon’s Army’

April 11, 2014


What does it mean for a system of justice when lawyers are handling hundreds of cases at the same time?

That's what Dawn Porter, a lawyer turned filmmaker, wanted to find out.  Porter visited Curry College's Milton Campus for a screening of her film Gideon's Army followed by a post-screening discussion as part of "The Social Justice Series," on Friday, April 11.

Gideon's Army premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and aired on HBO Documentary Films soon thereafter. The film follows three idealistic public defenders in the Deep South during their daily mission to counsel hundreds of defendants through the strained criminal justice system.

The viewer gains insight into the personal stories of Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick struggling with long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads of poor people charged with serious crimes.  All three attend meetings at the Southern Public Defender Training Center (now known as Gideon's Promise) where they receive support from each other, additional public defender participants, and mentor Jonathan "Rap"Rapping. It is not uncommon for public defenders to leave this kind of work after their first year.

After the screening Porter said that a starting salary for a public defender in the state of Georgia, for instance, is $40,000.

"It's not a terrible salary, but a low salary for people with high levels of debt, considering student loans and mortgages."

She was later asked if it's common for lawyers to use public defender roles as a stepping stone to their careers.

"Public defenders go into the field because they are interested in helping people - a lot of them leave because of the pay and the caseloads. They also leave because they start to feel that they can't do anything. They start to feel that the system is oriented toward putting people in jail."

To make this point clearer, Porter shared a short presentation to the audience with graphs and statistics.  The first eye-opener was one graphic that illustrated that The United States encompasses 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's prison population.  The U.S leads in incarcerations - ahead of China and Russia, countries with poor human-rights reputations.

"And when we think about America, and what we stand for, that's surprising to me...We're locking up people really frequently."

Another statistic she shared is that 80% of defendants charged with felony offenses, which carry particularly severe punishments in states such as Georgia, rely on court-appointed public defenders.  Only 5% of defendants actually get a trial. 

"So if you're facing 14 years to life and then you're offered a (plea bargain) deal, it starts to make sense to take the deal.  And that's why we have 95% of people charged pleading guilty to crimes," she said.

Porter's message of a strained criminal justice system came to a crescendo when she reported that arrests for violent crimes in the U.S. amounts to over 500,000 while for drug crimes (the majority which are for possession) the number is over 1.5 million.

"Of course I believe in punishment and a strong police force, but, as it turns out, the violent people are the fewest people in prison.  Police have to handle minor drug crimes instead of pursuing the really bad guys.  I think that's bad public policy for everybody.  I don't think that keeps any of us safe and that's what we should be concerned about."

Below: Listen to excerpts from Dawn Porter's post-screening discussion and view related information (pdf)


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