Law School Partners with Innovative Public Defender Training Organization

Jonathan Rapping leads a small-group session at the Gideon's Promise Summer Institute.

Jonathan Rapping leads a small-group session at the Gideon’s Promise Summer Institute.

OXFORD, Miss.–The University of Mississippi School of Law has partnered with Gideon’s Promise to host their two week Summer Institute, July 31-August 15, 2015. Gideon’s Promise is a national organization which provides support and training to defense attorneys.

“Every year, committed young lawyers begin their careers as public defenders – criminal defense attorneys for the poor – only to find themselves swamped with overwhelming caseloads and little support,” said Debbie Bell, interim dean.

“Gideon’s Promise provides the training, support, and community to help these attorneys to fulfill the promise made over fifty years ago in the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright – to provide their clients with the quality legal services that all citizens deserve. The law school is lucky to be able to link our students and faculty to this game-changing organization.”

Led by MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Jonathan Rapping, the organization works to improve criminal justice in the South, making it a perfect partner for the law school given the work of its Clinical Programs. The Cochran Innocence Project, the MacArthur Justice Clinic and the Criminal Appeals Clinic all have similar goals of improving social justice issues in the state, and provide students with the opportunity to assist underrepresented clients.

“We did a site visit and met all the wonderful people and recognized the work that was being done here through the various clinics,” said Afton Mallard, program coordinator for Gideon’s Promise. “Also, we want to have a presence in the South where there is the greatest need for criminal justice reform.”

This summer’s institute contains members of the organization’s three year CORE 101 program (class of 2015),  “Leadership Summit 2015” for leaders of Public Defender Offices, and “Summer Session 2015” which includes previous CORE classes (2013 and 2014) now part of the three year CORE 101 program.  The CORE 101 program is designed for new public defenders, while the Leadership Summit helps public defender leaders improve the quality of representation in their offices.

Over 180 public defenders and 46 faculty members from around the country visited the law school for the program.  Most of the professors are experienced public defenders, indigent defense leaders, and specialists who are volunteering their time.

“The professors are experienced attorneys who work with you on everything that entails a defense case,” said Jason Payne, assistant public defender for the Harrison County Public Defenders Office.  Payne graduated from the Ole Miss Law School in 2008, and went through the program in 2013.

“This training is focused on client centered public defending,” he said.  “One thing they teach is to let people know your client is a human being.”

In addition to the on site training attorneys receive, they also have access afterwards to an online network of support from those who have gone through the program.  The Gideon’s list serve allows them to ask questions or post resources for their fellow defenders.

“I might get some literature on fingerprint stuff and post it, or someone may congratulate you after a trial win,” Payne said.   “Or, if you lose it’s for moral support. It’s a community to lean on in any manner.”

Participants can get involved through the organization’s Law School Partnership Project, where third year students apply and are funded through law schools and then gain full employment and entry into Core Program.  They can also enter the CORE 101 program with an online application, or they can be a leader or trainer in a Public Defender’s office that is focused on client-centered representation.

“I’m proud that Ole Miss is hosting this,” Payne said.  “This is a civil rights movement.  It is about getting equal and fair representation for these clients.”