Juvenile Defenders Gather in Memphis, Train to Fight Transfers

He turned 15-years old in a Shelby County jail last year.

For nearly one year, he has been kept in a cell awaiting his trial. He’s charged with starting a fire that killed his mother. If convicted, he faces life in prison. If convicted, the decision he’s accused of making as a 14-year old boy … and the decisions other adults have made inside the criminal justice system … will, effectively, result in a death sentence for a child.

This week, 36 juvenile defenders from Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville will gather at the FedEx Institute of Technology for the third part of the Juvenile Defender Training Program (JTIP.) The new curriculum developed by two national leaders in juvenile justice reform — the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) and Models for Change — seeks to provide defenders the highly specialized training needed to advocate for children in the juvenile courts of Tennessee.  This week, Memphis continues its role as one of  the pilot sites for this training. 

photo (81)

January 2014 JTIP training at the FedEx Institute in Memphis.

This two-day training session will focus on the best ways for defenders to challenge the transfer of children to adult court. Much of the research involving transfer concludes that the damage it causes far outweighs any potential benefits to the child and community.  Analysis of FBI statistics on the relationship between transfer and lower violent crime rates among children reveals no significant correlation.  In fact, states that transfer less, experience drops in violent youth crime rates at the same or greater rate than states that transfer more. Additionally, some research shows that children sentenced in the adult system are more likely to commit violent crimes once released, than those detained in the juvenile system.

But the significant cost to children is … undeniable. Children sentenced to an adult prison are at heightened risk of physical, sexual and psychological harm at the hands of adult inmates and prison staff.  Adult imprisonment can also disrupt adolescent development, both socially and cognitively. The result can be serious, lifelong damage to young people who will, with very few exceptions, return to their communities one day.

The transfer process is of particular interest in Shelby County. That’s because the 2012 Department of Justice investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court found a lack of due process for children facing transfer to adult court. It also found that black teens were significantly more likely than white teens to be sent to adult court, even for minor infractions.

In the Memphis case, as many as 4,100 teenagers were once formally charged each year, and nearly 200 of those cases were sent to adult criminal court. But the numbers are dropping. In 2010, 151 teenagers were transferred to adult criminal court. This year, the number will be around 100, said Mr. Scroggs, of the Shelby County juvenile court.” –  The New York Times, December 2012. 

While the number of transfers is down dramatically from the DOJs original findings, the number and race of children still being sent into Shelby County’s adult system is troubling to those involved in juvenile defense.

JTIP trainer Kris Henning of Georgetown Law working with a juvenile defenders at the January 2014 training at the FedEx Institute.

JTIP trainer Kris Henning of Georgetown Law working with a juvenile defenders at the January 2014 training at the FedEx Institute.

National Leaders Teaching National Standards

JTIP training has been held in a handful of communities across the country — an effort to raise the level of juvenile defense to high national standards, while at the same time taking into account state laws and practices.

JTIP trainer, Kris Henning, a law professor and co-director of the Juvenile Justice Center at Georgetown Law, will return to Memphis this week.  Henning has been involved in training across the country and believes this program is invaluable to both experienced and new defenders.

Experienced defenders are rarely given an opportunity to stop and reflect on how they are practicing, and how to raise their level of practice. So it’s been very, very good for that,” says Henning. “It’s also good for defenders to see what’s going on in the rest of the world, so they can raise their level of practice by trying novel ideas that are common or well-received in other jurisdictions. For new defenders, it’s just been hands down, extraordinarily enlightening and provides their basic framework.” 

The Memorandum of Agreement between Shelby County and the DOJ required that Shelby County Public Defender’s Office take primary responsibility for the defense of children in Juvenile Court.  Earlier this year, when members of the new Juvenile Defense Unit took their initial cases, it marked the first time the public defender’s office had an official role in Juvenile Court in more than 30 years.

Shelby County Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush says it is important for his office to provide this level of training to members of his new Juvenile Defender Unit, as well as attorneys on the private panel taking cases in Juvenile Court. Bush believes this immersive training program will help raise standards for juvenile defense in Shelby County because the JTIP curriculum is delivered by some of the best minds in the national juvenile justice reform movement.

These are some of the most talented legal educators I’ve ever seen come in to do this type of training,” says Bush. “This is different from how training is normally provided to lawyers, ten and twenty years after they are out of law school. It’s experiential, interactive, engaging.  It’s not just that these trainers know what they’re talking about, it’s that they are effective teachers. And they have spent an enormous amount of time, not just in producing training that drives these standards of practice, but in localizing it to Tennessee practice, tying it to Tennessee rules of juvenile practice, to state law, respecting case law and court opinions.  There’s real value in framing the defender’s role through this type of instruction.

The final section for Memphis JTIP training will take place in August.

You can read more about the National Juvenile Defense Standards here.

Read about the first rounds of Memphis JTIP training here.

Click this link to read the DOJ findings and the MOA.



Posted in Uncategorized

Screening of ‘Gideon’s Army’ at On Location:Memphis Film Festival

Screenshot 2014-04-04 11.10.37


“… with liberty and justice for all.

It’s the final and defining line of the pledge we take as Americans. It’s at the heart of what public defenders across the country seek — justice for poor Americans faced with deprivation of liberty.

But the sheer volume of people in need of public defenders has skyrocketed in the past two decades, while funding for indigent defense has lagged far behind criminal justice spending for law enforcement, prosecution and incarceration. It’s little wonder the U.S. Attorney General has characterized public defense as being “in a state of crisis.”

Gideon’s Army is the award-winning documentary that follows three young public defenders fighting for their clients in the face of staggering caseloads.

‘Gideon’s Army’ has been selected for the 15th Annual

On Location: Memphis Film Festival.

We are excited to bring this compelling film to Memphis!


Screenshot 2014-04-04 11.39.54Sunday, April 27th @ 5:30pm

Studio on the Square

Screening/panel discussion


Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the Malco box office and will soon be available for purchase online.



Posted in Gideon, Outreach

Client Death Prompts Public Defender to Speak Out

Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Jacinta Hall (middle) speaking at an event at the University of Mississippi.

Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Jacinta Hall (middle) speaking at an event at the University of Mississippi.

The lawyers of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office do not often share client stories publicly.  The attorneys in our office are bound by a code of ethics that discourages lawyers from discussing details of a case publicly.

Today, we have a rare opportunity to share a firsthand account of the difficult journey one of our assistant public defenders, Jacinta Hall, took with her client.

Her story was first published on the website of a new national organization  – the National Association for Public Defense (NAPD.)  Hall, a former assistant public defender in Mississippi, is now a Gideon’s Promise attorney in our office. But like many dedicated lawyers, she keeps up with some former clients long after the attorney-client relationship ends.

Recently, she discovered that a young man awaiting trial since 2012 — a 21-year old whom she believed to be wrongly accused —  met a horrific end during a riot . . . while awaiting trial in a Mississippi detention facility.

“He wasn’t supposed to be there. He should have been home in 2012. I called his mom and she thanked me for working on his case and for him. She sounded strong but said that she has been told her son was beaten so badly that he’s no longer recognizable, all because of the system.”   — Jacinta Hall, Assistant Shelby County Public Defender

Read Hall’s entire account here.

Hall originally shared her story in a listserv used by members of Gideon’s Promise, a program based in Atlanta that provides training and support for public defenders practicing in the South.  The founder of Gideon’s Promise, Jonathan Rapping, wrote this email to comfort Hall and her colleagues. His response was also published on the NAPD site:

“Our clients are drowning in injustice.  They sink a little more each day.  Their hand is reaching out grasping for anyone who will grab it and try to pull them to safety.

Most lawyers (in fact, most people) position themselves to never see the outstretched hands.  They live comfortable lives with nice things, and can pretend the injustice is not right outside.

Others actually see the outstretched hands and choose to ignore them.  They watch them sink out of existence every day.  They participate in the process that ensures they will drown, and lose sight of their role in the injustice.

Then there are the very special few.  Public Defenders. You guys.  You seek out those hands.  You grasp them, hold them, work to pull them to safety.  You often cannot succeed.  Your clients are so frequently swallowed in injustice.  But you are by their side as it happens.”  - Jon Rapping, Gideon’s Promise

Read Rapping’s full comments here.

You can learn more about the National Association for Public Defense by clicking on their website.  We also encourage you to like their Facebook page and follow them on Twitter.



Posted in Gideon, Justice Reform, Prison Reform, Public Defender's Office

Acclaimed Documentary about Public Defenders Screening in Memphis

The Atlantic calls it “the most underfunded, overworked ‘army’ in American history.”

Meet the foot soldiers.

Screenshot 2014-04-04 11.10.37

“… with liberty and justice for all.”

It’s the final and defining line of the pledge we take as Americans. It’s at the heart of what public defenders across the country seek — justice for poor Americans faced with deprivation of liberty.

But the sheer volume of people in need of public defenders has skyrocketed in the past two decades, while funding for indigent defense has lagged far behind criminal justice spending for law enforcement, prosecution and incarceration. It’s little wonder the U.S. Attorney General has characterized public defense as being “in a state of crisis.”

Gideon’s Army is the award-winning documentary that follows three young public defenders fighting for their clients in the face of staggering caseloads.

We are proud to bring two screenings of “Gideon’s Army” to Memphis this spring.


Screenshot 2014-04-04 11.39.54Sunday, April 27th @ 5:30pm

Studio on the Square

Screening and panel discussion

Tickets are $10 at the box office or you can buy them online by clicking here.



Screenshot 2014-04-04 11.43.41Friday, May 30th @ 2:30pm

University of Memphis School of Law

Screening and panel discussion

Free to the public and CLE will be available.  Details will be available soon on JustCity.org







Posted in Funding Public Defense, Gideon, Justice Reform, Public Defenders

The Hidden Costs of Suspending Driver’s Licenses for Non-Driving Offenses: Resources, Public Safety

It’s not good at preventing repetition of the same violation.  It can decrease public safety. It’s expensive. Plus, it can cost citizens lost wages and further entrench people in poverty.

Screenshot 2014-03-28 15.29.09“It” is the suspension of driver’s licenses for non-driving offenses.  According to a 2013 report funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, all states should end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for everything from failure to pay child support and student loans to advocating overthrow of the government.

The report cites that taking away a driver’s license for non-driving offenses is expensive, ineffective and distracts departments of highway safety away from their mission — keeping highways safe.

“The creation and implementation of suspensions for non-highway safety related reasons generates unnecessary costs to the jurisdiction and creates a burden on driver licensing authorities, the courts and law enforcement through financial limitations and expenditures of resources. The cost to create the suspension in the agencies computer system, as well as the cost in personnel time and supplies is an expense that is not justified by the end result.”    American Association of Motor Vehicles Administrators (AAMVA), “Best Practices Guide to Reducing Suspended Drivers” (2013)

A recent post on the Atlantics Cities blog highlighted the efforts of a Republican lawmaker who is challenging his constituents and  fellow legislators to rethink the consequences and purpose of suspending licenses for non-driving offenses.  In his interview with a local newspaper, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford described the very real scenario of a man losing his license for non-payment of child support, but then unable to reliably get to work …  because he had no driver’s license.  The result – another person unemployed and a mother no closer to getting child support checks.

In Florida, more than 160,000 people had driver’s licenses suspended for non-driving offenses  in 2013.  While Florida may have a large number of suspensions for both driving and non-driving offenses, it is not among the top states for percentage of drivers with suspended licenses.  In fact, Tennessee is among the top five states for percentage of drivers with suspended licenses — more than 13% of all Tennessee drivers had their licenses suspended, according to a 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation. If Tennessee is in line with national statistics, more than one-third (39%) of those with suspended licenses, received the suspension for non-driving offenses.

Non-driving offenses in Tennessee that can result in suspension of a license are:

  • Non-payment of child support
  • Possession of a controlled substance
  • Fuel piracy/theft
  • Weapon/threat in a school

Minors in Tennessee can have their driver’s licenses suspended for the following:

  • Alcohol possession/consumption
  • Using a false ID to purchase alcohol

Supporters of the overhaul of driver’s license suspension policies maintain that while violation of child support agreements and stealing gas are problems that must be addressed — the solution should not involve taking away a license meant to promote highway safety.  Other supporters make the argument that this mission drift can even decrease public safety.

“When a law enforcement officer encounters a suspended driver, their ability to help ensure the safety of drivers on the roadways and their availability to respond to calls for service are reduced. The officer must take appropriate action for the violation and later appear in court for adjudication of the ticket(s). While the officer is in court, there may be little or no enforcement presence in their patrol area. Officers are made unavailable for 9-1-1 responses, crash investigation, criminal interdiction, and other enforcement activities, potentially increasing the threat to public safety.

Eliminating 39 percent of suspended drivers will result in fewer citations for driving while under suspension and partially alleviate clogged court dockets. Individuals whose offense is unrelated to highway safety will retain their driving privileges, their ability to earn a living, and their ability to contribute to the economy.”   AAMVA (2013)

If you are interested in seeing which non-driving offenses in various states can result in driver’s license suspension, click this link.


Tagged with: ,
Posted in Justice Reform, Poverty

‘Gideon’s Promise’ Movement Growing in Memphis

Clarence Earl Gideon

Clarence Earl Gideon

“I became a public defender because I felt it was a moral imperative and because the people who otherwise would not be able to afford my services … are the ones who need it the most.”   Alex Lynch, Shelby County Assistant Public Defender

It was 51 years ago this week that a drifter — remarkable only for his decades long record of mostly petty crimes — sparked a transformation of our criminal justice system.

From his Florida prison cell, Clarence Gideon drafted a handwritten petition claiming that the court’s refusal to assign him counsel, because he was too poor to afford his own, was unconstitutional. His case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court and on March 18th, 1963, the court agreed with him.  The Gideon v Wainwright decision established the right of counsel to anyone facing deprivation of liberty, regardless of ability to pay.

Shelby County had already created a public defense system, some forty years earlier, in 1917 — making it the third oldest public defender office in the country. But the Gideon decision is credited with the creation of public defense systems in most other parts of the country, where before, there had been none.

In the half-decade since Gideon, however, the criminal justice system has hardly developed into one that provides all people a fair shake. While Memphis may have been an early adopter of publicly-funded defense for the poor, its role as a leader has been undermined by crushing caseloads that have long outpaced increases in funding. Public defender workload in Shelby County has more than doubled in the last twenty years while staffing has only grown by 9% … a local example of what U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently called a national “crisis” in public defense.

The Shelby County Public Defender's 'Gideon's Promise' classes of 2012 & 2013.

The Shelby County Public Defender’s ‘Gideon’s Promise’ classes of 2012 & 2013.

In counties and states across the country, public defenders struggle to realize the promise of Gideon. That’s why in 2007, the Southern Public Defender’s Training Center was established — to provide support and training for young public defenders.

Too often, these lawyers have little or no time to see their clients outside the courtroom, engage in investigation, or even adequately prepare their cases.  The result – poor people can receive inadequate defense and good lawyers are left frustrated by the injustice.  The program was designed to help lawyers navigate this broken system and serve as change agents.

In 2013, the program rebranded as Gideon’s Promise and is now a cadre of more than 200 young public defenders working in systems throughout the South.

Today, our office has ten of its most promising, young lawyers involved in ongoing and intensive training through Gideon’s Promise.

Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush plans to send more from his office every year in an effort to provide high quality training and support for young lawyers and to give these public defenders the tools to push change in a broken system.

“By engaging with these young, energetic lawyers, we are adding to a legacy of aggressive and zealous advocacy,” says Bush. “They bring fresh ideas and tireless client-centered work and are trained by some of the best public defenders in the country.”

Fifty-one years later, the promise of the Gideon decision has yet to be realized.  But there is the hope that one day, it will.  And a great deal of that hope rests with this next generation of attorneys.

Watch this interview with Gideon’s Promise participant and Shelby County Assistant Public Defender, Katherine Oberembt, about the problems she sees everyday in our criminal justice system:

Note: Later this spring, you can learn more about Gideon’s Promise and meet its founder, Jon Rapping, when the organization visits Memphis.  Our office will also hold a screening of a film involving attorneys from the program — the award-winning documentary, Gideon’s Army.  The event is planned for May. More details will be shared here on JustCity.org

Read More about Gideon’s Promise:

Two of Nation’s Top Law School Grads Join Shelby County Public Defenders

National Leader in Indigent Defense Reform in Memphis to Train Shelby County Public Defenders

Can an Army of Young Attorneys Revolutionize Public Defense? Watch the Film Premiere on HBO

Posted in Gideon, Justice Partners, Public Defender's Office

Law Students Volunteer Spring Break, Restore Voting Rights in Shelby County

Combine the populations of Los Angeles and Chicago — that’s 6 million people.  Now you have the number of Americans disenfranchised by past criminal convictions.

This week, law students from New York, Florida and South Dakota joined with counterparts from the University of Memphis to restore voting rights for eight Shelby County citizens.

Law student volunteers observe voting rights restoration hearings in Shelby County Circuit Court.  Photo Courtesy: University of Memphis School of Law

Law student volunteers observe voting rights restoration hearings in the courtroom of Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Robert L. Childers.  Photo Courtesy: University of Memphis Law School.

“The most rewarding experience this trip has been sitting in those hearings and seeing the judge restore rights of citizenship. He would stand up, shake their hands and say ‘I’m proud of you.’ That was just so moving to me, ” says Bridget McCullough of Syracuse University College of Law. “We’ve all made mistakes in our lives. Some have made greater mistakes than other people. That’s just a fact of life, and some of us have had support that others haven’t had.”

McCullough is one of 75 law students participating in the University of Memphis School of Law’s 5th annual Alternative Spring Break.  The program is coordinated by the University of Memphis’ Public Action Law Society, making it  the only student-led pro bono Alternative Spring Break program in the country. This year marked the largest number of participants in the program’s history.

“Even being here this short time and making this small impact has been very rewarding to me, ” said McCullough, who plans to be a public defender after graduation.

For the past two years, the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender has collaborated with the Public Action Law Society to run the criminal law track, one of seven pro bono tracks offered during the Alternative Spring Break (ASB).  In 2013,  ASB participants helped with the Shelby County Public Defender’s innovative “Street Court,” which resulted in waivers of old court costs for 75 indigent clients.  This year, spring break volunteers assisted with the Shelby County Public Defender’s “Citizenship Restoration” program.

Chris Martin heads up the Shelby County Public Defender’s citizenship restoration program.  As a law student and president of the  U of M’s Public Action Law society, Martin coordinated the ASB’s first partnership with the public defender’s office in 2013. This year, he is an assistant public defender for Shelby County and relishes the opportunity to mentor students.

Assistant Shelby County Public Defender, Chris Martin, leads students through the process of voting rights restoration.

Assistant Shelby County Public Defender, Chris Martin, leads students through the process of voting rights restoration.

“It’s a really important partnership, because we want to encourage a civic service tradition among law students,” says Martin. “There is a whole new generation of law school students coming in, Millennials, with a service orientation. We want to let them get their feet wet in indigent defense programs like our PDs office, so they can see what it’s like to work with clients who can’t afford a lawyer but still need access to justice.”

The ‘Barriers and Roadblocks’ of the Criminal Justice System

What these students are seeing is just how difficult it is for a person who has paid his debt to society … to return to full membership in the community.

Sarah Smith is a first year law student at the University of Memphis and worked with Martin to coordinate this year’s criminal defense track. She believes the process of filing a petition for restoration of citizenship, navigating the bureaucracy and talking to clients is an eye-opening experience for everyone involved.

“It offers an understanding of the ways a felony conviction affects an individual,” says Smith. “Beyond just the period of incarceration, you realize they’ve lost their right to vote, right to hold a business license, right to be an executor on an estate or a guardian.  Those are things that can really matter to a person, that can make a really big impact … just to say you are a citizen, again.”

The restoration of citizenship rights is an arduous process in Shelby County, largely because it has been so infrequently attempted here.  It requires coordination among the attorney for the petitioner, the district attorney’s office, the courts and the Shelby County Election Commission. In the weeks before the student volunteers arrived, Martin and Smith had to navigate a number of obstacles in the process.

This is not the story in many states across the country.  According to the Brennan Center at the New York University of School of Law, a vast majority of states automatically restore voting rights after completion of a sentence.  In fact, Maine and Vermont never strip people of voting rights for criminal convictions.

On the other end of the spectrum, Iowa, Florida and Kentucky permanently disenfranchise people with felony convictions.  Tennessee is one of eight other states that permanently disenfranchise people for some criminal convictions.  In each of these eleven states, the government can approve individual rights restoration, but it is a lengthy and difficult process, certainly one that would necessitate the help of a lawyer.

Members of the 2014 Alternative Spring Break criminal defense track.

Members of the 2014 Alternative Spring Break criminal defense track.

“We throw up these barriers and roadblocks. There are a lot of flaws in the justice system,” says McCullough. “And there’s not enough of us to help. Government has the obligation to make justice available to everybody.  I think that’s something we can continually work on at the federal and state level.”

Small Steps, Big Hopes

The eleven students who worked on the criminal defense track could only navigate the complexities of the system for eight clients. To do that in such a short period of time was a monumental task.

But they leave this experience knowing they helped mark a significant shift in the trajectory of eight lives.

“The extent to what they lost is sad, ” says Binna Yi of Brooklyn Law School. “And to be able to restore rights and to see the change in the faces of these people … once they have signed that voter registration card … it’s been really fascinating and hopeful to see.”

Posted in Gideon, Justice Partners, Public Defender's Office, Reentry
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