Dear Board Members:
I am the Executive Director of Gideon’s Promise, an organization that provides training and support to many of the public defenders in Louisiana. However, I am not a lawyer. I got involved in the effort to reform indigent defense for very personal reasons.
In 1982, when I was five-years-old, my father was sent to prison. By the time he was charged with a crime he committed several years earlier, he had married, converted to Islam, started a small business, and had three children with my mother. When he began his ten-year prison sentence, my mother was pregnant with her fourth child – my brother. Although my father was a very different man by the time his past mistakes caught up with him, he never had a chance to convince the judge of this. He was given a public defender who never took the time to learn about my father. His lawyer saw him as just another case to be processed into a prison cell. His life was thrown away without any resistance. And along with it went the stabilizing force my family desperately needed.
Despite my efforts to help raise my baby brother, including bringing him to college with me at Cornell, he ended up in prison. I simply could not compensate for the absence of my brother’s only male role model in a world that is brutal towards young men of color. In fact, every man in my family has been involved with the criminal justice system. Yet, none ever had a court-appointed lawyer who treated them as though their lives had value. I grew up seeing public defenders as part of the problem.
Sadly, all across the nation there are criminal justice systems that hold such low standards of justice for low income people that even well-intentioned lawyers can be pressured to accept the unjust status quo. Too many are shaped into lawyers they never thought they would become. Alone, it is hard to resist the systemic pressure to go along with what is happening.
I left my career as a teacher to build Gideon’s Promise because of the promise I see in the lawyers working in offices like those we partner with in Louisiana. They have built a strong community of support that helps them withstand the pressure to accept injustice and to work to challenge systemic problems. None exemplify this more than the courageous lawyers in Lafayette. I look at the lawyers in Lafayette and marvel at how different they are from any public defenders I met growing up. I see how they care about their clients and wish the men in my family had them when their liberty was on the line. I watch how these lawyers stand up to a system that has become too used to processing low income people into prison cells and I know there is hope for families like mine.
I know there are offices in Louisiana that are raising the standard of practice in systems that previously seemed hopelessly broken. But Lafayette has to be a leader in that category. It sets an example for what could be. It offers hope to those of us who used to see public defense as useless.
I understand that the Board has some very difficult decisions to make. It is tasked with figuring out how to most effectively allocate far less money than is needed. But there could be no better investment than to ensure that an office like Lafayette flourishes and continues to set an example. Should it be forced to let go of many of its amazing lawyers, public defense will revert back to a period when people without means had no hope. When the system does rebound, it will be too late to recover what was lost.
In a system where one of the greatest challenges is helping lawyers to continue to care, there can be no greater investment than supporting those who have found a way to collectively remain inspired to demand justice.
Thank you for your attention.
Ilham Askia Executive Director