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“Gideon’s Army: Combating the Indigent Defense Crisis”

February 26, 2014

By Angela Hooks C’14

On February 20th, the Penn Law Criminal Record Expungement Project (C-REP) presented a screening of “Gideon’s Army,” an HBO documentary that showcases the difficulties plaguing public defenders working within a strained criminal justice system.

The event, a part of Penn Law’s Public Interest Week, began with a panel discussion to frame the issues later highlighted in the documentary for audience members. The panel consisted of Ellen T. Greenlee, chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, David Rudovsky, senior fellow at Penn Law, Larry Duttweiler, public defender of Hall County Public Defender’s Office, and John Holloway, associate dean and executive director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at Penn Law.

During the panel discussion, Rudovsky explained lawyers’ ethical obligation to not take on too many clients. Yet, in dealing with the realities of the U.S. criminal justice system, he acknowledged the difficulties of translating this ideal into action because of the limited number of public defenders and the legal obligation to provide all criminal defendants with representation.

This presents a tradeoff, however. “If you have 1,000 or 1,200 or 1,500 clients and you have to triage those cases away, that means some people won’t be properly represented,” Rudovsky said. Thus, the choice is between overworked public defenders or indigent defendants without any state-provided representation.

Greenlee remarked that this is an issue associated with a vertical system, where one lawyer is assigned a case from beginning to end. In Philadelphia, public defenders’ offices operate on a horizontal scale, which means that lawyers share caseloads and the responsibilities associated with each case. But this system has its own problems, which Greenlee candidly disclosed.

The panel discussion set up the screening of “Gideon’s Army” by fostering frank discussion of the problems that plague the criminal justice system and influence the ways in which public defenders work. The documentary follows three public defenders as they try cases and work to handle the stresses of their jobs.

To learn more about the documentary, please visit