What is Gideon’s Promise and What Do They Do?

Sometimes people know they are in need of a local attorney but don’t have the knowledge or means to get one to help them. They want the best public defender but may have to settle for less because of time or monetary constraints.

In America, no one should lack adequate legal representation when they need it. That is where Gideon’s Promise comes in. They are a charitable organization built around public defenders. Their goal is to give everyone who needs help the best public defender for their situation.

One of the main focuses of Gideon’s Promise is equal justice for everyone. This is a value often touted in America, but just as often not realized. That is the drive behind Gideon’s Promise’s mission.

But that’s barely scratching the surface of Gideon’s Promise. There is a lot more to this organization than merely promised public defenders to those in need.

What is Gideon’s Promise?

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Gideon’s Promise calls itself a “501 (c)(3) public defender organization whose mission is to transform the criminal justice system.” This includes building a strong network of public defenders who can help under-served and marginalized communities. Toward this end, the organization has six core values:

  • 1. Client-Centered Work: Whether their clients need DUI defense services or help with bail or any other kind of legal assistance, Gideon’s Promise aims to provide that without judgment. Their community of advocates aim to offer the best public defender services for any situation while focusing on the client’s priorities so they can make informed decisions about their situation. The average DUI lawyer can cost almost $2,000, with fees that spike the total cost of such an incident to $5,000 to $8,000. Someone facing that kind of trouble definitely needs a strong lawyer on their side.
  • 2. Culture: Culture is important to Gideon’s Promise, both within their organization and without. Internally, they aim to build a group with shared values so they can offer humanity and dignity to everyone they serve.
  • 3. Equal Justice: One of the organization’s core beliefs is that everyone deserves equal justice under the law. That requires passionate public defenders committed to helping their clients regardless of circumstances.
  • 4. Community: Gideon’s Promise also focuses on helping the public defenders themselves. To be able to offer the best public defender to a client requires that public defender have the support and a network where they can strengthen their skills. The law professionals who work with Gideon’s Promise build peer to peer relationships to support and inspire each other in their work.
  • 5. Cultural Competency: No matter what kind of legal services they’re providing, Gideon’s Promise aims to engage with clients from diverse walks of life. That includes people of different races, ethnicities, incomes, genders, sexualities, and nations of origin.
  • 6. Inspired Change: Gideon’s Promise doesn’t just want to help their clients. They also want to inspire change within the system at large.

You can see that Gideon’s Promise has a lot on their plate. They are tackling a large mission that encompasses a lot more than just legal matters. Whether they are working on business litigation, family law, or something else entirely, those basic principles guide their network of public defenders.

History of Gideon’s Promise

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Jonathan Rapping first started Gideon’s Promise in 2007 in order to respond to the need for training and mentorship of public defenders. At the time, the concern was specifically in regard to communities in the South that lacked resources for this kind of work.

Gideon’s Promise was founded as a nonprofit. Rapping relied on his decade of experience working as a public defender in Washington, D.C. One of the first concerns he sought to address was the high turnover rate among public defenders. It is hard to get the best public defender when so many of them have not been working in the field for very long.

This was part of the reason Gideon’s Promise put some of its focus on community and training for public defenders. Having a client-focused community with shared values allows public defenders to support each other and not just their clients.

The name Gideon’s Promise comes from a 1963 court case called Gideon v. Wainwright. That is the case in which the Supreme Court determined that every person in America who’s been accused of a crime must be provided with a lawyer, regardless of their ability to pay. Thus did the public defender system get its roots in aiming to help every client who needed mediation or other legal assistance.

However, Gideon’s Promise doesn’t just aim to offer any public defender. They want to offer the best public defender. That is why they have so many training and mentorship programs.

These programs have exploded in scope over the years. Starting with just one program for 16 attorneys, Gideon’s Promise now has more than 1,000 participants and more than 100 partners, statewide and affiliate offices in 29 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The program itself has also gotten more ambitious. It is not just for public defenders who are just starting out anymore. Gideon’s Promise now officers programs that can help public defenders in all stages of their careers.

In addition, the group works with 22 law schools to help get future public defenders into offices where they can do their work. Their training and mentorship might focus on anything, from hands-on experience to strange legal quirks to health care to roadside assistance. You never quite know what the criminal justice system might throw at you.

Who Does Gideon’s Promise Help?

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At a surface level, you could say that Gideon’s Promise helps public defenders. The organization works closely with new and experienced public defenders alike to help give them a network to rely on and training and skills they can use in their work.

It is true that so many of Gideon’s Promise’s programs focus on public defenders themselves. From their Core 101 to their Leadership Program to all the training in between, they offer a ton of services to public defenders to help them in their work.

This is an essential part of their mission to provide the best public defender to everyone regardless of income or social status. It doesn’t matter if their clients work in a warehouse or a skyscraper, everyone should have access to strong legal representation when they need it.

The core 101 program is the foundation of what Gideon’s Promise offers to public defenders. It is a two-week program for those just getting started in their training and includes one-on-one mentoring.

However, Gideon’s Promise does not just work with public defenders who are just getting started. They also have an alumni program for those who wish to come back and help mentor other public defenders. This also helps strengthen their community and network as they go about their future work.

Other training includes a leadership program and summer law clerk program. The leadership program gives more experienced public defenders a chance to gather every six months to engage in the type of training and leadership development that might be useful to them. They can also share experiences and strategies, which helps strengthen that bond of community and support.

The summer law clerk program lets students who have completed a year of schooling get a taste of the real world. Gideon’s Promise will help partner these students with a real public defender’s office where they can get hands-on, up-close experience with the job.

Of course, Gideon’s Promise does not only help public defenders. The larger goal of the organization is to help those under-served by the justice system. The organization believes that everyone should have access to the best public defender, regardless of economic status. That is the larger goal and the impetus behind their training and other programs for public defenders.

Some of their Programs

Training is not all Gideon’s Promise offers. Mentorship is a huge push for the organization. Often, students can get into law and find themselves overwhelmed by the complexity of even simple things. A newer public defender might not think that something like dentistry impacts their client’s case, for example. However, legal cases are rarely so cut and dry.

For example, something like a buccal DNA test could have a huge impact on a client’s case. The client might not have even taken the test themselves, but if anyone in their family has done this kind of test it could come back to hurt their relatives later.

This is just one example of how strange and complicated the law can get, especially where criminal matters are concerned. That is one of the reasons Gideon’s Promise puts such a heavy emphasis on its mentorship program.

Gideon’s Promise mentors offer continuous support to public defenders. It doesn’t stop when the training stops. These mentors, who are Gideon’s Promise faculty or current or former public defenders themselves, help support other public defenders on an on-going basis. They also help to motivate their partners and push them to be the best public defender possible for their clients.

This speaks to the larger mission of Gideon’s Promise to help those who are often passed over by the legal system. All this training and mentoring ultimately benefits those clients in need, who get better legal representation at a crucial moment in their lives.

This is all backed up by the push to keep values in mind during this work. Gideon’s Promise mentors will reinforce the goals and beliefs of the group, and why those values are so critical for impacted communities, during mentoring and training.

Mentorship also helps get students into actual public defender jobs later on. Gideon’s Promise helps those students start their careers and offers more programs and training after they are already working as public defenders.

Gideon’s Promise also has programs for public defenders who want to become faculty for the organization and help teach future legal professionals. Of course, the standards for this are very high. Beyond just having worked as a public defender, Gideon’s Promise faculty should have demonstrated in some way in their careers a dedication to the group’s values. This might be through past mentoring or through working in a jurisdiction where Gideon’s Promise has partner offices.


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The impacts of this work are far-ranging and often hidden from obvious view. It is hard to quantify how much mentoring helped a student grow into the best public defender they could be or how much a good lawyer helped out a single client and their family.

Sometimes these impacts are small and not immediately obvious, either. Fixed annuities don’t seem like they have that much to do with criminal justice, but when someone’s life is upended by the legal system no part of it goes untouched. Only hands-on experience can teach someone all the ways their work will impact someone.

However, the group does also have some tangible impacts they have measured. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have run a nationwide First Responders of Justice program. This program aimed to get non-violent people released from jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers during the pandemic so they would not be at increased risk of getting the disease.

Another push of this particular program has just been to get the criminal legal system to respond better to public health emergencies. So often, the health of incarcerated people is overlooked or not prioritized, but Gideon’s Promise believes all people should be treated with dignity, especially the most marginalized among us.

The organization also put out a call to action around the Black Lives Matter movement. This call to action included several steps such as ending cash bail, not charging children as adults, and not treating jails like mental health treatment centers. So much that doesn’t need to goes through the criminal justice system when it could be solved elsewhere with less pain and suffering for all involved.

Other calls to action include: Demilitarizing the police, promoting community rather than convictions, providing more resources for public defenders, increasing accountability for prosecutors, and holding unethical judges, prosecutors, and police accountable for their actions.

These goals all tie into Gideon’s Promise’s broader mission in regard to giving everyone a chance at having the best public defender they can. The group has joined marches and rallies to promote the values and calls to action listed above and continues to push for more accountability and a more equal system of justice.