To understand how the legal system is stacked against the poor and people of color, ask Madeleine Gilson about her recent trips to Sacramento.
A 25-year-old from Providence, Rhode Island who studied sociology and African-American Studies at Princeton, Gilson ended up working at the Alameda County public defender’s office in Oakland in 2020. During her first year there, one of her clients (who wishes to remain anonymous) needed to file paperwork for a related civil case in Sacramento, 82 miles away.
Bureaucratic barriers were everywhere. The paperwork needed to be stapled in a certain order, with only blue ink — black ink would get it rejected. Not two-hole punched in the proper place? Rejected. Even with Gilson’s help, the application was rejected three times for relatively small technicalities. In one case, it didn’t include a blank sheet of paper for the agency in question to use for its response. In the midst of a heated trial, the client would never have been able to make the time for roundtrip journeys to the California capital to correct paperwork errors, if not for Gilson’s assistance.
“Unfortunately, the way these systems are designed, they make it very difficult to navigate on your own,” Gilson says. “They’re difficult to navigate as a college-educated individual who is dedicating my life to this.”
Gilson isn’t a lawyer or a paralegal, and she didn’t study law in school. She’s an advocate at a new nationwide nonprofit called Partners for Justice (PFJ), which is trying to reimagine how public defense operates in the U.S. Their strategy? To help criminal defendants navigate the Kafkaesque American legal system so their cases aren’t upended by minor procedural lapses.
Partners For Justice believes that the simple act of helping those without privilege decode the legal system — and providing resources for overwhelmed public defenders — can lead to more just results. Assistance from PFJ advocates ranges from helping clients facing misdemeanor charges find housing, to working with attorneys on mitigation and re-entry to help shorten jail times.
Co-founder and co-executive director Emily Galvin Almanza wants to “build a team to ensure that every single client we have has their future thought about, recognized, heard, preserved and thought for.” The organization claims its initial team of 10 advocates helped 325 people eliminate nearly 40,000 days in jail, saving society $4.9 million. By 2025, Almanza wants to recruit 100 advocates.
Underfunded public defenders, and the Americans who rely on them during trial, often don’t have the resources to devote as much time as they’d like to any given case. It’s expensive to be poor, and for defendants, it’s also a lot more time-consuming. PFJ advocates say any number of pressures or additional legal issues can distract clients, or worse, lead to a chain of events that gets them into more trouble.
Many of these obstacles are small, but their consequences can be far reaching. There are clients who can’t call court officials because their phone was shut off for late payments. Others miss court dates because they can’t find childcare or don’t have a driver’s license. Any one of these slip-ups can lead to crippling fines or additional jail time.
“One thing that has really surprised me is seeing just how far the enmeshed penalties of incarceration stretch, often beyond the individual experiencing the sentence to their loved ones and to their communities,” says Gilson. “While we do work directly with the clients, I spend a lot of time on the phone with grandmothers and aunts and brothers and sisters, and I see how this system impacts all of them.”
Almanza started PFJ in 2018 based on her personal and working experience with juvenile justice. As a teenager in Massachusetts, she found herself in front of a judge who asked why she was in court that day facing a shoplifting charge. “You have all this potential,” the judge said, alluding to Almanza’s college acceptance letter, and dismissed the case. Almanza’s next few years, including college, law school and becoming a lawyer, came from the privilege she enjoyed as a white woman in the criminal justice system. It pushed her to become a public defender, where seeing how similar cases played out differently for teens and defendants of color strengthened her resolve for change.
The program started placing advocates in public defenders offices in Oakland and Delaware, and has since expanded to multiple cities, including Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Pablo, Montana, where advocates will work for the Salish and Kootenai tribes. After a four-week training course where accepted applicants are taught how to support and work with lawyers, they’re sent for a two-year stay with a specific office.
Advocates see the entire process, and often juggle dozens of clients at a time. There’s pre-trial work, writing mitigation petitions to reduce sentencing, or working on re-entry.
Shania Trammell, 24, works as an advocate in the Wilmington, Delaware public defender’s office. After graduating from Villanova in 2019, she was attracted to the opportunity to give back to her home state. For some of her clients, the bulk of her work may be around child welfare; she remembers one client who needed help finding a nonprofit to winterize her home to make sure her kids had a safe place for the winter. Another had recently returned from jail and needed help connecting with cash assistance and housing so they could look for a job and get resettled without being stressed out.
“We often think of a criminal legal case via TV shows like Law and Order, so we expect them to happen over the course of a 50-minute episode,” Trammell says, “but that’s not the case at all.”
The work of PFJ advocates can have profound impacts on individuals. Brian (not his real name), 48, of Metairie, Louisiana, had two felonies and a long stint at the infamous Angola Prison on his record when he was charged with possession of a firearm in 2020, a crime for those with felony convictions. Mick Kligler, his advocate, helped Brian not only get the charges dismissed, but also get into rehab. Kligler is excited to have a relationship with Brian and believes he’s in a promising spot.
“A few things that are consistent with this work is that people are incredibly resilient and resourceful, and that a unifying experience they share is the deep, deep, trauma of being incarcerated,” Kligler says.
Brian, who calls Mick a “tiger bunny,” is similarly optimistic.
“Mick was the person who showed me you can be strong without violence,” he says. “If it wasn’t for [Mick], I’d be doing 10 years now. I’d be dead. 1,000 percent, everyone should use these advocates.”
Public defenders have come to rely on PFJ. Brendon D. Woods, who runs the Alameda Public Defender’s office, was inspired to join the profession while growing up a Jamaican immigrant in Queens, New York, and seeing how policing, enforcement and incarceration impacted his community. He’s constantly been impressed with the work and mindset of PFJ, and their intense knowledge and commitment.
“My poor Black clients from West or East Oakland should be given the same level of advocacy as some rich kid from Piedmont or some other rich part of the county,” he says. “The advocates mean we’re able to attack the criminal part of the case, and then attack every single other element or collateral consequences that you would be able to attack if you had money.”
Alameda County started with PFJ in 2018, when a grant from the nonprofit paid for the advocates. Now, a majority of PFJ’s services are being paid by the county, roughly $275,000 a year. Woods says it’s a model every public defender’s office should adopt.
“As a nation, we keep putting people in cages, policing them and saying, “Okay, figure shit out on your own,’” he says. “That does not work.”
As PFJ continues to expand and impact more defendants, one of the program’s most lasting impacts may be the careers of the advocates, who speak about being inspired to continue this kind of work. Gilson says that at first, trying to fix these massive, inequitable systems made her feel like she was “throwing sand at a brick wall.” But seeing her impact makes her, and others, feel like there may be a time when fewer barriers to justice exist.
“I’m just excited to see a world where Partners for Justice is no longer needed, because this holistic approach is so ingrained in every public defender’s office that our jobs will be made obsolete,” says Trammell.
This story originally appeared on Reasons to Be Cheerful, and appears here as part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.