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Public defenders challenging the system profiled in new film

Every year in the United States, 12 million people are arrested.

Every year in the United States, 12 million people are arrested. Eighty percent of the individuals that make their way through the criminal justice system are represented by one of only 15,000 public defenders. Can any lawyer faced with such a daunting caseload possibly provide adequate justice for her clients?

The soon-to-be-released documentary "Gideon's Army" followed three public defenders for three years as they navigated the criminal justice system and tried to ensure that their clients received fair trials and reasonable outcomes.The film's title refers to the 1962 Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, which guarantees those charged with a crime the right to be represented by a public defender if they cannot afford a lawyer.

Two of the lawyers profiled in the film talked about their experiences on Sunday's Melissa Harris-Perry.

At any given time, public defenders juggle about 100 cases, according to attorney Travis Williams, a public defender. Williams said he's not deterred by working with clients who are often charged with brutal crimes.

America "means nothing if we don't have people who stand and force it to act right," Williams told Harris-Perry. "It means nothing without the force of public defenders and strong advocates."

Brandy Alexander, another lawyer profiled in the film, discussed the emotional approach needed to take on the work.

"I don't think you can do this work without being empathetic." Even once the daily challenges started to wear on her, she did not want to stop. "If I don't do it, I may turn it over to someone who doesn't care as much," she said.

Watch Melissa's full interview with Williams, Alexander, "Gideon's Army" director Dawn Porter, and activist Bryonn Bain. The first half is above, the second below. For more on the issue, visit the film's website.