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Gideon's Promise founder honored
by Bobby Tedder
May 07, 2014 12:29 PM | 2372 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Staff/Samantha M. Shal
Gideon's Promise founder Jonathan Rapping (right) with Executive Director Ilham Askia
Staff/Samantha M. Shal Gideon's Promise founder Jonathan Rapping (right) with Executive Director Ilham Askia
For Jonathan Rapping, turning “pretenders” into viable public defenders is the means to a noble end.

That would be leveling the playing field via a criminal justice reform model widely hailed as groundbreaking and transformative.

For his efforts, Rapping in April was selected as one of the inaugural Purpose Economy 100 by Imperative Group Inc., a New York-based nonprofit aiming to connect people to purpose on a national or global scale.

“It’s such an honor,” he said. “It really recognizes that we are training and grooming a generation of public defenders to practice with purpose. We want to build a community of lawyers who are going to push the system to live up to its ideals.”

Seven years ago Rapping founded Gideon’s Promise, a downtown Atlanta-based nonprofit designed to inspire, mobilize and train legal professionals to provide quality defense representation for the indigent.

Its impact has reverberated to such a degree as to land the longtime lawyer on the list. Perhaps the gravity of that feat sets in when considering Rapping’s fellow honorees include the likes of former Vice President Al Gore, uber philanthropist Melinda Gates and mega-church pastor/best-selling author Rick Warren.

“The Purpose 100 highlights and celebrates the work of those shifting the paradigm on what is possible for all of us through work that reignites purpose,” New York nonprofit CEO Aaron Hurst said in a statement. “By founding Gideon’s Promise and training more than 250 public defenders over the past seven years, Jon more than exemplifies that calling.”

For Rapping, shaking up the status quo is the path toward bringing the scales of justice closer into balance.

Nearly 80 percent of the 12 million denizens ushered annually through the country’s criminal justice system cannot afford a lawyer.

Consequently, many innocent defendants plead guilty simply because they cannot afford to take their case to trial. Throw into the fray a public defender system overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work ahead of them and one gets a clearer picture of the predicament at hand, Rapping said.

“There are pockets of dysfunctional [criminal justice] systems all across the country,” he said. “People are just processed through and [far too often] we see passionate lawyers go into these systems only to eventually have that passion beaten out of them. … When they burn out, they either give in to the status quo or leave the professional altogether.”

Each member of the Atlanta nonprofit’s trained squad of public defenders sees an average caseload of 300 per year.

Developing strategies aimed at reigniting and maintaining what fueled their entrée into the legal realm is at once both the entity’s motivation and great challenge.

“He is a pioneer working to bring equal justice back to our judicial system,” Hurst said. “I look forward to watching Jon and Gideon’s Promise continue strengthening the resources available to public defenders.”

In addition to accolades, the Atlanta nonprofit is also garnering a fair share of visibility. Case-in-point: it was the subject of HBO documentary, “Gideon’s Army,” released last year.

The other side of the coin entails redefining the image/role of the public defender from the perspective of their most crucial allies.

“I think that in every office where our lawyers practice, we’re seeing people accused of crimes have a different image of what a public defender is — and not this idea of the public ‘pretender,’ who’s colluding with the state to push people to take pleas,” said Rapping. “[Clients] may not be thinking, ‘I’m going to get out of jail tomorrow [after an arrest] … but at least I know I have a fighting chance.’”

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