Brandy Alexander, Travis Williams and June Hardwick have dedicated themselves to defending those who otherwise would not receive representation, contending with a day-to-day life of low pay, long hours and staggering caseloads. Despite these obstacles, with the help of the Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC), these young professionals are inspired to take on this unique challenge in the name of public service.
Travis Williams is a Gainesville, Ga. lawyer whose client, Branden Lee Mullin, has been accused of armed robbery and faces a minimum of ten years to a maximum of life in prison. Brandy Alexander has served as a public defender in both Georgia and Florida and is preparing to go to trial on behalf of her client, Demontes Regary Wright, a young man also charged with armed robbery.
The demands on these public defenders can be overwhelming: The average caseload for a public defender in Miami Dade County, Fla. is 500 felonies and 225 misdemeanors. Not surprisingly, many public defender offices across the nation have an incredibly high turnover rate. The pace is exhausting, and the legal wrangling intense, but these young public defenders persevere. Knowing the stakes are high - and their clients' lives will be deeply affected by what they do, or fail to do - they push themselves to the limit over and over again.
Does their work have to be this difficult? Experts cite the nation's approach to criminal justice to explain the dire state of indigent defense. In many southern states, bonds for misdemeanor crimes are exorbitantly high, as much as $40,000 for misdemeanor crimes like shoplifting, which most defendants cannot afford. This leads to a high rate of pretrial detention for indigent clients, with many serving months or even years in prison without a trial. Another factor is the rate of plea bargaining intended simply to end pretrial detention. Notes Brett Willis, a senior public defender featured in the film, "The reality is 90% or 95% of the people who get charged with something plead guilty...because the system is designed to force them to plead guilty and it punishes their failure to comply."
In addition to lengthy prison sentences, clients found guilty can face severe civil sanctions, which can result in such extreme punishments as: losing eligibility for public benefits, such as federal student loans; losing the ability to live in public housing with one's family; losing the right to vote; and, in some regions, losing the right to hold a driver's license, which can be a severe obstacle to finding post-incarceration employment.