Women Making a Mark: Ilham Askia

Her mission is to show a face where there is a case

Photo by Martha Williams

Roughly 80 percent of Americans charged with a crime cannot afford a lawyer and put their fate in the hands of a public defender. These court-appointed advocates typically face staggering caseloads and an entrenched culture of expediency. Even the most well-intentioned among them fall into the habit of “processing” people, not representing them, says Ilham Askia, executive director of Atlanta-based nonprofit Gideon’s Promise, which trains and supports public defenders according to the fundamental belief that every client’s humanity is worth honoring. “If you see someone as human, it’s hard to lock them away in a cage,” she says.

When Askia was five years old, her father was arrested for a years-old crime and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His public defender never interviewed his family or business community, never told the story of his struggles or transformation. In an instant, her mom became a single parent to three kids and another on the way—a son who would later be incarcerated.

Despite her initial distrust of the profession, Askia ended up marrying a public defender, Jonathan Rapping, and in 2007 left her teaching career to help him transform the field that had shaped both their lives. From a handful of attorneys in Georgia and Louisiana, Gideon’s Promise has grown to reach more than 1,000 participants in 29 states, offering values-based training throughout their careers, mentorships to young defenders, and fellowships to recent law-school grads. According to the nonprofit Measures of Justice, clients of Gideon’s Promise–trained lawyers are incarcerated less often and less likely to file unnecessary guilty pleas. “We produce the best defense lawyers in the country,” says Askia, “but our primary focus is, do you care about the people you serve?”

Outside of work, Askia and her husband cheer on their two teenagers at athletic events, and they recently celebrated the publication of Rapping’s book, Gideon’s Promise: A Public Defender Movement to Transform Criminal Justice. Says Askia of the book, “It provides the road map. It’s not just public defense that needs reform. You can use the Gideon’s Promise model to reform all areas of the criminal legal system.”