I recently watched Selma, a stirring movie about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and so many others who sacrificed to make our nation live up to its most cherished ideals of equality and liberty for all Americans. Like many others, I left feeling the film is as much a reflection of battles we are fighting today as it is about civil rights victories of the past. But I viewed these parallels from a unique point of view. As the President of Gideon’s Promise, an organization that trains and supports public defenders in some of our nation’s most broken criminal justice systems, I work with lawyers who are on the front lines of arguably this generation’s most important civil rights struggle—the effort to reform America’s criminal justice system. If we are to fix this national civil rights crisis, public defenders will have to be part of the solution.
Selma is set in 1965, and—just as we did 50 years ago—we continue to view some lives as less valuable than others. We still embrace an embarrassingly low standard of justice for our most marginalized populations. We persist in promulgating policies that ensure certain communities will never be able to fully participate in our society.
2.2 million people are incarcerated at any given time in America, far more than any other country in the world. Nearly 6 million have lost the right to vote because of a criminal conviction. Countless others are rendered ineligible for student loans, public housing, benefits necessary to care for their families, and employment opportunities. The victims of this injustice are almost exclusively poor. They are disproportionately people of color. Our race- and class-based system of mass incarceration is tearing apart families, destroying communities, and making it almost impossible for children of incarcerated parents to ever break the cycle. So, much like 50 years ago, we need a movement to address this civil rights imperative.
Like any other feature-length movie focusing on a complex event, Selma was reduced to a simplified narrative in which the heroes overcome adversity to achieve victory—the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But, as much as Dr. King sought to push for policy reform, his larger vision demanded much broader transformation. He understood that while a law can temporarily force those with a warped sense of justice to change their behavior, true equality only occurs when we collectively embrace it as a fundamental and inviolate American value; when we reshape our culture into one which truly views each and every citizen as deserving of respect and dignity. King fought not only for legislative victories, but also the transformation of the hearts and minds of Americans. Selma was part of a broader campaign designed to shine a light on the inhumane treatment of African Americans and awaken our national consciousness to the fact that this behavior violates our greatest ideals.
Likewise, if we are to realize equal justice today, we must work to transform a criminal justice narrative that assumes people in our poorest communities are somehow inherently dangerous; that measures justice by the harshness of the punishment; that lumps the world into categories of “us” and “them” with law enforcement as “the good guys” and those they police as “the bad guys.” Strategies to reform unjust polices are necessary. Of course we must scale back the criminalization of an ever increasing index of behavior. Certainly we should end a system of bail that detains people pretrial simply because they are too poor to pay the bond that is set. We absolutely need to reform overly punitive sentencing laws.
But if we do not change the fact that we have come to equate justice with punishment and to associate the most negative qualities with race and class, equal justice will remain elusive. Those who administer our justice system will continue to disproportionately monitor, arrest, prosecute, and punish poor people and people of color. We must work to transform our assumptions about our most marginalized populations and how they deserve to be treated. So, while policy reform plays an important role, as was the case 50 years ago, we need a movement to transform the hearts and minds of a nation.
Public defenders can help to drive this campaign. With 80 percent of people accused of crimes too poor to afford an attorney, public defenders are the voice of our impoverished communities in the criminal justice system. By organizing public defenders, we can harness the collective voice necessary to speak up for the humanity of people in these communities and to infuse the system with values essential to justice.
A movement of public defenders has the power to reframe the criminal justice narrative in this country—an essential precursor to sustaining a movement for reform. Lawyers for the poor have the opportunity to humanize their clients every time they speak in court. Public defender leaders can spread the message more broadly as they speak on behalf of the populations they represent in meetings with judges, policymakers, and the community. There are thousands of public defenders across the nation speaking for millions of people whose voices are routinely ignored or dismissed. Their clients are frequently cast as demons, when in fact they are the people who bag our groceries, care for our children, and serve us in restaurants. Most Americans are a paycheck away from needing a public defender. Yet, we do not see people caught up in the criminal justice system as part of our shared community. Until we see these lives as just as valuable as the lives of people we care about, we will not have equal justice. We must mobilize this army of advocates to achieve that transformation of hearts and minds.
That is how we will continue the march that so many heroic civil rights warriors began in Selma.