If you're a public defender, you've heard the question. If you know a public defender, you may well have asked them the question.
"How can you defend those people?"
That's answered, definitively, in the documentary "Gideon's Army," which screened Thursday night at the Wisconsin Film Festival in the Union South Marquee Theatre. The film, about three public defenders working on behalf of indigent clients in the South, drew several local public defenders in the audience, who said what they saw on screen rang true.
"I can see a lot of everything we do here in Madison in this film," public defender Mario White said. "I think that documentaries like this highlight the fact that, just because the government says you did something, that doesn't mean you did anything."
The film is a mix of social policy investigation and gripping legal drama, showing how the legal system is skewed against poor defendants, pushing them to plead guilty and save the system the trouble of a trial. If you're arrested and can't afford to post bond, for example, you end up sitting in jail, unable to earn money, unable to take care of your children.
Mike Tobin, deputy state public defender, said he appreciated the way the film showed the collateral damage to defendants, even those who are ultimately acquitted. The film shows one woman who is incarcerated on a drug charge, and even though she's ultimately only sentenced to probation, she's lost her job, her apartment and her possessions as the case winds its way through the system.
"Gideon's Army" also shows the toll that the job of public defender takes on the lawyers themselves, often idealistic young people who believe they're providing a valuable service to preserve the integrity of "and justice for all." They're overworked (one defender, Brandy Alexander, has 180 felony cases on her desk) and underpaid, and often fighting an uphill battle on behalf of their clients. One charismatic defender, Travis Williams, tattoos on his back the names of every defendant whose case he lost in court. He's up to six names.
Tobin said Wisconsin's system for public defenders, unlike those in states like Florida and Georgia, is a model for the nation, and there are many law students here eager to take jobs as public defenders.
"We're certainly not perfect, and we're certainly not lavishly paid," he said. "Retention is an issue. We do not have a predictable and solid method for advancement."
"Gideon's Army" will premiere on HBO on July 1. And if there was any doubt that the public defenders in the film – part legal warriors, part nurturing counselors – aren't indicative of defenders in general, that was dispelled by hearing from Madison public defenders at the screening.
White told what sounded like an old public defender joke that underscores the crusading nature of the profession.
"Myself and my colleagues work with people who will lie, who will cheat, to get ahead," White said. "And we have to protect our clients from those people."