Jonathan Rapping, J.D. ’95, Awarded MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant

Criminal lawyer and founder of public defense training center named one of the country’s most creative people.

September 17, 2014

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Alumnus Jonathan Rapping is one of 21 individuals to win a MacArthur "Genius" grant this year.

When Jonathan Rapping talks about his motivations, he often cites a shocking statistic: Approximately 80 percent of accused felons in the U.S. criminal justice system cannot afford legal defense.
That number has compelled the lawyer and advocate to tackle criminal justice issues head-on. After receiving his J.D. from the George Washington University in 1995, Mr. Rapping provided public defense training in New Orleans, Georgia and D.C. In 2007, he founded Gideon’s Promise, an organization devoted to coaching and nurturing young public defenders and connecting them with a support network of mentors and peers from all over the country.
On Wednesday, Mr. Rapping’s efforts were recognized by the MacArthur Foundation. He was one of 21 people to receive a prestigious MacArthur “Genius” grant, which goes to creative individuals committed to driving change in the world. This year’s MacArthur Fellows include filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, who made the Academy Award-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing,” and poet Terrance Hayes.
Mr. Rapping will receive a $625,000 stipend paid out over five years so that he can follow his creative vision and continue to train public defenders nationwide.
“There is no greater civil rights crisis going on in this country today than in our criminal justice system,” he said in a video for the MacArthur Foundation. “Nowhere are there greater abuses happening to poor people and people of color.”
He originally started Gideon’s Promise as the Southern Public Defender Training Center. He renamed it after Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark case from 1963, in which the Supreme Court ruled that under the 14th Amendment states are required to represent defendants unable to afford their own attorneys.
At first, Gideon’s Promise was a small training program for just 16 attorneys in Georgia and Louisiana. Today, it boasts more than 300 participants across 15 Southern states. Because Mr. Rapping is a skilled teacher who serves as an associate professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, he has created a comprehensive, three-year training model that includes follow-up programs so young public defenders continue developing their skills throughout their careers.
Mr. Rapping, who credits much of his passion to his activist mother, also established a partnership with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender in 2014. Under this collaboration, the Gideon’s Promise model will be replicated in statewide defender systems. 
“Public defenders are essential if we’re going to live up to this idea of equal justice,” he said.