A law professor who is teaching Maryland's public defenders to better serve their poor clients amid "crushing" caseloads is among the winners of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius" grants.
As founder of the Atlanta-based organization Gideon's Promise, Jonathan Rapping works to train public defenders and help reform what he considers civil rights abuses in the criminal justice system. He arrived in Baltimore in May for a year-long stint at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, his first attempt at changing a statewide system.
He joined a gay marriage advocate, a physicist modeling brain activity, a psychologist studying racial bias in policing, and a cartoonist exploring family life in receiving $625,000 each as new fellows of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
"I really haven't had a second to figure out how we're going to spend the money," Rapping said in an interview. "More important than the money is the validation that comes along with the MacArthur fellowship. The work we're doing is a really critical piece of the larger criminal justice reform effort."
The foundation, which began its program in 1981 to fund the specialized work of ambitious free-thinkers, uses anonymous nominators and selection committees to decide who gets the no-strings-attached grants given to each recipient over a five-year period. Recipients, who usually do not know they are being considered unless they win, join 897 other MacArthur fellows, the group said.
Announced Tuesday night, the award was a surprise to Rapping, 48. He is an associate professor at Atlanta's John Marshall Law School, but is on a leave of absence as he devotes much of his time to working in Baltimore.
He founded Gideon's Promise with his wife in 2007 after a career as a public defender in Washington, D.C., Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
While he started in what he called a "model public defender's office" in Washington, flush with resources and with manageable caseloads, he found that wasn't the case in much of the rest of the country.
"Systems have come to accept an embarrassingly low standard of justice for poor people," Rapping said.
But his group, named for the 1963 Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, that required state courts to provide attorneys to those who can't afford them, seeks to change that. Its work was the subject of a 2013 HBO documentary "Gideon's Army."
It has trained 300 public defenders in 15 states, and is now applying its philosophy of "client-centered representation" to the Maryland system's 570 lawyers.
Paul DeWolfe, the state's top public defender, had been involved for two years with a Gideon's Promise leadership group when he asked Rapping to bring his expertise to Maryland. Like many public defender systems around the country, Maryland's lawyers handle often unwieldy caseloads.
In all but two state jurisdictions, lawyers representing clients in circuit courts were expected to handle more cases than suggested under caseload guidelines adopted in 2006, according to state legislative documents.
Rapping recently led a two-week training for new public defenders, and other instruction is being tailored to more experienced lawyers, support staff and the office's internal training staff.
"Our lawyers have responded tremendously to his leadership and to his training protocol," DeWolfe said. "It's based upon establishing a real bond and trust with each attorney's client and giving them the best representation possible, realizing that with sometimes crushing caseloads, they can't provide a perfect defense, but they continually strive to do their best."
Rapping calls the failings of public defender systems across the country a glaring injustice as a large and growing share of those in the criminal justice system cannot afford a lawyer.
"Public defenders are doing the most important civil rights work of our generation," Rapping said. "The greatest abuses that happen to poor people and people of color are occurring in our criminal justice system."
Among the other 20 grant winners are:
•Civil rights lawyer Mary Bonauto, 53, who spearheaded the legal battle in Massachusetts that led to the first U.S. court ruling to strike down a gay marriage ban in 2003.
•Cartoonist and graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, 54, known for a long-running comic strip about lesbian friends and for her critically acclaimed 2006 memoir about growing up a lesbian with a closeted gay father in rural Pennsylvania.
•Stanford University social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt, 49, for her studies of racial bias and policing and the criminal justice system. She has begun work to help local police agencies "build and maintain trust with the communities they serve."
•Documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, 39, whose "The Act of Killing" shines a light on death squads after a failed communist-led coup attempt in Indonesia in the 1960s.
•Mathematician Yitang Zhang, 59, of the University of New Hampshire, who "emerged from relative obscurity with a landmark achievement in analytic number theory: the so-called bounded prime gap, which essentially establishes that the difference in spacing between two consecutive prime numbers is, infinitely often, bounded by a fixed number," the organization said.
•Poet and University of Pittsburgh writing professor Terrance Hayes, 42, for his work reflecting race, gender and family. "Hayes conjoins fluid, often humorous wordplay with references to popular culture both past and present in his subversion of canonical poetic forms," the foundation said.
Reuters contributed to this article.