Happy Supreme Court anniversary, Mr. Gideon! Now let’s address the causes of mass incarceration

Public defender Heather Rogers and Caitlin Becker, director of the office's Holistic Defense Division
Heather Rogers, Santa Cruz County’s first public defender, with Caitlin Becker (left), director of the office’s Holistic Defense Division.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Do you know who Clarence Earl Gideon was? Heather Rogers, Santa Cruz County’s first public defender, reminds us why we should all celebrate an unhoused drifter who 60 years ago changed the American legal system by standing up for his right to a fair trial. She walks us through her first seven months on the job, supplies some statistics on our prison system and pushes us to take a hard look at mass incarceration: “I urge you to question whether prosecution and incarceration are the answer for conduct related to mental illness … where treatment is more likely to get better results,” she writes.

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I became Santa Cruz County’s first public defender in July 2022 because of an unhoused drifter who died well before I was born.

His name was Clarence Earl Gideon, and in 1961, he was accused of stealing beer, soda, and $55 from a Florida pool hall. Mr. Gideon had no money, and when he asked for a lawyer, the judge said “no,” so he represented himself. (I’m using the formal “Mr.” here, rather than simply “Gideon,” because I don’t want to replicate the dehumanization that occurs, subtly and not so subtly, in our courtrooms and jails.)

Mr. Gideon had an eighth grade education and defended himself against a professional prosecutor. Unsurprisingly, he lost. The judge sentenced him to five years in prison.

Mr. Gideon’s next decision changed everything — including my life and our community.

I picture Mr. Gideon sitting on the edge of a dingy mattress in a windowless cell, near a stainless-steel toilet bowl, staring at dull, dirty walls, pondering the mockery of a trial that got him convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.

A locked door closes Mr. Gideon into his 6-by-8-foot cell. Enveloped in the smell of prison (sweat, urine and feces cut with chemicals), he rails against his unfair fate.

Clarence Earl Gideon.

Then, he acts.

Mr. Gideon picks up a pencil and five pieces of paper. He writes a petition asking the Supreme Court to reconsider his case. And, in one of the great social justice moments of all time, on March 18, 1963 — 60 years ago — nine justices (by a 9-0 vote) overturn decades of settled case law to reverse his case and order a new trial.

The Supreme Court holds, in the watershed case of Gideon v. Wainwright, that the Sixth Amendment guarantee of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial, and the Constitution requires the state to provide attorneys for indigent people accused of crimes. The ruling grants Mr. Gideon a new trial. With a court-appointed lawyer to defend him, the jury finds Mr. Gideon not guilty in less than an hour.

Mr. Gideon’s path from drifter to champion reminds us that ordinary people can do extraordinary things — if they just have the faith, courage and resolve to try.

Another hero — Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first female attorney in California — launched the public defender movement in the early 1890s, when she fought for legislation supporting public defenders in 30 states and ignited the initiative that led to the first public defender’s office in Los Angeles in 1914.

She, like Mr. Gideon, paved the way for me to be our county’s first public defender.

Last summer, Santa Cruz County opened our first Office of the Public Defender, transitioning from a private firm to a public agency. We opened with a new model that recognizes the underlying causes — including mental illness, substance use disorders, homelessness and generational trauma — that affect our clients’ actions. We defend over 6,000 cases a year, using a community-based whole-person defense model that pairs aggressive advocacy with holistic practices and community engagement to address enmeshed social and legal needs.

Those holistic practices include early representation, which provides jailed clients with advocacy before their first court date. I’m already pleased with the results — in just five months, we have reduced the average jail time for these clients by about 13 days, from 24 days without early representation to 11 days with early representation.

Heather Rogers, Santa Cruz County's first public defender.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Our Holistic Defense Division, consisting of social workers and client advocates working in partnership with attorneys, investigators and paralegals, provides clients with links to supportive services and case planning. In their first five months, our holistic teams served nearly 300 clients, with many clients already having positive outcomes: six clients engaged in treatment or programming; four clients obtained health insurance; two clients obtained long-term housing; two clients enrolled in school; one client preserved a job that was at risk; 105 clients received case planning and structured support. Many clients report feeling more supported now that they have an interdisciplinary team to help them navigate their way through the criminal legal system.

I knew we needed a different public defense model in Santa Cruz County because I’d been a defender here for more than eight years before I became the public defender, and I was ill-equipped to meet my clients’ needs.

I have hundreds of examples, but a client I met soon after I was appointed to my new position offers a telling story. She’d spent the night in a tent with a man who was trafficking her for drugs. With all my lawyer skills, my fancy suit and my shiny new title, I wasn’t able to get her an appointment with a mental health provider that day, or a bed, or the medication she needed to treat her mental illness.

After spinning out for hours trying to help her, in the end, the best I could do was drop her off at her tent with a few bags of food.

Heather Rogers, Santa Cruz County's first public defender.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Not surprisingly, she ended up back in custody less than a week later, facing even more serious charges.

This same client today would have an interdisciplinary defense team, including a social worker, to help her.

She would benefit both from our searchable database that maps services and our close relationships with providers. She would have a case plan and structured support to get treatment, find housing and extricate herself from an abusive relationship.

Santa Cruz County is not alone in the challenges we face. The United States is a world leader in incarceration, with 2 million people in prison. The burden of incarceration falls heaviest on people of color, with Black Americans incarcerated at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans and Latinx Americans imprisoned at 1.3 times the rate of white Americans.

Over 40% of people in jails and prisons have been diagnosed with mental illness, and 62% of people released from prison return within 10 years. Our county jail typically incarcerates around 300 people — about 85-95% men, 10-15% women and one or two nonbinary people, with about 50% of the jail population taking psychotropic medication for mental illness.

We are at a reckoning, another moment in history when it is time to rethink what is fair, just and possible to end mass incarceration, address the root causes of system involvement and heal our communities.

Mr. Gideon was buried in an unmarked grave. A decade later, the American Civil Liberties Union placed a headstone on his resting place with a quote from a letter he wrote to his lawyer: “I believe that each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind.”

On this 60th anniversary of the Gideon decision, I urge you to join me in answering Clarence Earl Gideon’s call to keep fighting for justice, no matter how long the odds.

I urge you to support calls for housing, treatment, education, jobs, services and support for people at risk of system involvement. I urge you to question whether prosecution and incarceration are the answer for conduct related to mental illness and other root causes where treatment is more likely to get better results.

Together, we must challenge the status quo. Together, we must demand equal justice for all. Together, we will accomplish extraordinary things.

Heather Rogers has been a public defender for nearly 20 years in the state and federal systems. She has represented clients accused of offenses from delinquency to homicide, defended detainees incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, and argued cases in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. She served as a public defender at Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc., in Monterey County, and at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Northern District of California before coming home to Santa Cruz. She has a bachelor’s degree in English language & literature from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Stanford University. She is a lecturer in politics at UC Santa Cruz. She was born in Santa Cruz, where she is raising two girls, ages 8 and 14.

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