Being a public defender is a tough job. Being a public defender in the South — which has a reputation for heavy case­loads, harsh sentencing and tough criminal laws — is especially challenging.

Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have the three highest per-capita incarceration rates in the nation, a 2012 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found. The five states with the most prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes are all in the South, according to a recent American Civil Liberties Union report.

Large caseloads aren’t unique to the region, but studies have found that public defenders in New Orleans spend an average of seven minutes with clients, and the average caseload for a public defender in Miami-Dade County is 500 felonies and 250 misdemeanors — far more than the American Bar Association’s recommended caseload of 150 felony and 400 misdemeanor cases.

Those challenges are precisely why the South needs more young, passionate public defenders who are dedicated to improving indigent defense, according to Jonathan Rapping, the president and founder of Gideon’s Promise, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that trains and advocates for public defenders throughout the South. To that end, Gideon’s Promise has launched the Law School Partnership Project, aimed at making it easier for Southern public defenders to hire talented new law graduates. It partners with law schools that commit to funding a recent graduate to work in a Southern public defender office for up to a year. The office, in turn, pledges to hire the graduate for a permanent position within the year. Through its “Core 101″ program, Gideon’s Promise trains and mentors new graduates for three years. The program, which emphasizes legal skills and the values of public defense, got a boost in October with a $1 million grant by the U.S. Department of Justice. Sarah Olesiuk, an assistant public defender in the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office in Knoxville, credits the training program with teaching her the basics of effective public defense work and providing a robust support network of other young public defenders.

“This job can really beat you down,” said Olesiuk, who graduated from Boston College Law School in 2011. “You see a lot of sad things, but knowing that other people are going through the same thing is really valuable.”

Program participants start with a 14-day boot camp, then meet in person every six months after that. The semiannual meetings and an online forum enable them to share their on-the-job victories and defeats and compare how different offices operate, Olesiuk said.

She added that she is lucky to work in an office that offers holistic representation, where attorneys and social workers work together to address the root of their clients’ problems, be it mental illness, homelessness or drug abuse. But some of her classmates have struggled to adjust to offices with a more traditional way of operating, she said. The Law School Partnership Project has three law schools lined up: The University of California at Los Angeles School of Law; New York University School of Law; and American University Wash­ington College of Law.

“The vital work of improving the quality of public defense is completely consistent with the law school’s mission of pursuing access to justice for all,” said American law dean Claudio Grossman. “This partnership will create a concrete pathway between law students and public defense work upon graduation and will be a significant service to communities in need.” Rapping hopes to have as many as eight partner law schools soon and place a dozen recent graduates in public defender offices by August.

“Much of what we’re trying to do is identify really good, young public defenders who want to work in the most challenging places,” Rapping said. “These are lawyers saying, ‘I want to be a public defender, but not in New York or D.C. I want to do it in Mississippi.’ “

The project aims to solve a recruitment problem that many Southern public defenders offices face. Most don’t have the structure or resources to interview on law campuses in the fall. Public defender offices in the South typically don’t have the budget to hold a job open for months while a student graduates and takes the bar. Because they seldom hire ahead of time, potential candidates can’t choose where to take the bar based on a job offer.

By letting students know they have a school-funded position in a public defender’s office before the bar exam, those offices will attract students who may not have considered applying otherwise, Rapping said.

Stephen Bush, chief public defender in Shelby County, Tenn., where Memphis is located, said it’s difficult to recruit top talent out of law school because his office can only fill open positions. Even then, he is restricted to hiring attorneys already licensed to practice in Tennessee. “This program will help us overcome a number of challenges when it comes to recruiting,” he said. “And it will broaden the diversity and perspectives of the attorneys in our office.”

Rapping formed the Southern Public Defender Training Center in 2007 — rec­ently renamed Gideon’s Promise — to help improve the quality of indigent defense throughout the South. He had worked in the Public Defenders Service for the District of Columbia before relocating to Georgia in 2004, and was dismayed by what he found.

“I started to see that the high standard of representation in D.C. was the exception rather than the rule,” he said. “In the South, the expectations for representation are embarrassingly low.”

Gideon’s Promise has widened its scope, and administrators believe partnering directly with law schools is an important next step. Participating law schools will determine how much to pay their fellows for the first year, Rapping said. After that, the fellows will be hired as permanent public defenders, initially earning between $40,000 and $55,000 a year.

Administrators at New York University say the benefits are twofold. “[T]alented NYU students committed to public defense work secure their dream jobs,” and … some of the nation’s neediest communities receive the high quality representation that our Constitution promises, and that every defendant deserves,” said NYU law professor Erin Murphy.

Contact Karen Sloan at