New Certification Law Seeks to Give Tennesseans with a Record a Better Chance in the Job Market

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But the new certificate comes only after some procedural hurdles and, of course, a fee.

The law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in a General Assembly not known for its cooperation. It was sponsored by two Shelby County lawmakers from very different districts — a white Republican representing the largely middle class-to-wealthy constituents in eastern Shelby County and a black Democrat elected from the the much less affluent, southwest part of Memphis.

Primary sponsors State Senator Brian Kelsey (R) and State Representative Karen Camper (D) say they crafted the bill to help convicted felons find work in Tennessee.

The Certificate of Employability Act became law on July 1, 2014.  The legislation is an attempt to give those who have criminal convictions the opportunity to obtain a certificate that provides protections for potential employers.  The hope is that a vetted and comprehensive certification process will encourage employers to take a chance on hiring those with criminal convictions and in doing so improve overall community safety by providing more people a path to employment and a more productive life.

The law was hailed by the editorial staff of the Commercial Appeal recently as “one of the more important pieces of legislation to come out of the General Assembly.”

Here’s how it works — if a petitioner is granted the certificate by a judge, he or she can present the certificate to a potential employer.  The certificate provides the employer with protection against claims of negligent hiring practices related to the applicant’s criminal background.  The certificate, of course, does not guarantee hiring and does not prevent an employer from examining the applicant’s criminal record.  It simply provides the employer some legal protection, as well as the knowledge that the district attorney’s office and a judge have reviewed an individual’s background and references and determined that her or she does not pose a public safety risk.

This narrow law represents a slight shift in Tennessee policy toward the national, bi-partisan movement for larger criminal justice reform.  Just this week, U.S. Senators Rand Paul (R) and Cory Booker (D) jointly proposed legislation for a wholesale “overhaul” of the criminal justice system, which includes a push for expungement of non-violent criminal charges.

Hopefully, this act will have a broader reach than Tennessee’s expungement law which was passed in 2012. The expungement legislation, also sponsored by Rep. Camper, sought to wipe clean the criminal records of individuals convicted of certain crimes.  But given that the law only applied to those with one non-violent felony or misdemeanor and with no other criminal convictions in the last five years, the number of those who actually qualify is small.  The law also came with a hefty $350 filing fee, which was inexplicably raised to $450 by the General Assembly this past session.

While this new legislation holds promise, it falls well short of what most people will need.

Like the expungement act, the Employee Certificate Act also includes a financial component.  A fee is not specified in the law, but a petitioner will be required to pay a filing fee. In Shelby County, that fee is generally in the $150 range.

Most damaging, however, is that the application process is long and unwieldy and will most likely require an attorney. The petitioner will need to prepare a petition, pay a filing fee, solicit personal references, and appear before a court. Before any hearing, however, the district attorney general and the appropriate clerk’s office must conduct their own verifications and notify any victims involved in the original crime(s). These are all time-consuming and complex tasks, and the awarding of the Certificate of Employability is ultimately a judge’s decision.

Certificate in hand, it is then up to the successful petitioner to find an employer willing to take a chance on her based on this new piece of court-issued paper, and that is no small task itself.

Click here to download the application form, which is available through the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Expungement, Justice Reform, Reentry

Memphis Teens Spend Summer Steeped in Public Defense, Other Areas of the Law

The Memphis Bar Association Internship Program is in its 8th year providing local high school students with a taste of what it means to be a lawyer.
MBA interns Nicole Weir (left) and Tashara Brown with the Shelby County Public Defender's Office

MBA interns Nicole Weir (left) and Tashara Brown with the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office

Nicole Weir says she’s wanted to be an attorney since she was 9-years old. So when she heard about an opportunity to intern with legal professionals this summer, she jumped at the chance. Weir was assigned to the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.

She’s doesn’t envision herself practicing criminal defense, but says her time spent with lawyers and law school interns has been invaluable.

“It has shaped my career plans by ensuring that law is what I want to study,” says Weir.

This sharpened focus on career and professionalism is the most sought after outcome for the Memphis Bar Association.  It begins even before students are accepted –  applications must be submitted and statements of interest written. Then, the tough part begins.

Students must go in groups of 20 before a panel of attorneys for interviews.  Applicants are judged on their oral presentation, interest in law and extracurricular activities.  If accepted, students agree to dress professionally and work approximately 60 hours during the month-long program. Upon successful completion of the program, the students are awarded a $500 stipend.

MBA Executive Director Anne Fritz says developing professionalism is at the core of the program.

“While we ask that the kids show some interest in the law, we know that not all will want to grow up and be a lawyer” says Fritz, “But if you want to grow up to be a professional anything, you have to be willing to do these things.”

The program is an initiative of the MBA’s diversity committee. It is designed to attract minority students. The big picture is to bring more diversity to the professional legal community. This year, 68 students from public and private schools in Shelby County were placed in public agencies, corporate legal departments and private law firms across Memphis.

MBA Interns learning about professionalism and social media.

MBA Interns learning about professionalism and social media.

Power Center Academy High School rising senior, Tashara Brown, spent her summer at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.  Her interest — criminal law.

“All of the lawyers I have met are passionate about their job, and I admire their dedication,” says Brown. “Before I interned at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, I only knew what other people had told me. I thought the Defender’s office was not the place to be if someone wanted to learn about being a real lawyer. This internship has changed my entire perspective on the Defender’s office … in a much more positive way.”

If you’d like to learn more about the MBA Internship Program, you can watch a video about it here. 

 

 

 

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

New Video Challenges Myths in the Face of Tennessee’s Unprecedented Death Penalty Push

Screenshot 2014-06-24 11.56.35The State of Tennessee has been making national headlines for its aggressive and unprecedented efforts to carry out the death penalty.  In December, the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office requested dates for ten executions. The first is set for October and would mark only the seventh person executed by the state since 1960.

Then last month, Governor Haslam signed into a law a measure that would make the electric chair mandatory, if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. There are only eight other states that authorize use of the electric chair by request of the person facing the death penalty.  This new law makes Tennessee the only state that mandates use of the electric chair without the consent of the person facing execution.

These new developments run counter to national thinking on the death penalty — public support has dropped significantly in the last two decades. In 1996, 78% of Americans supported the death penalty. In 2013, the number had dropped to 55%.  In recent years, 18 states have eliminated the death penalty and in three more states, governors have placed moratoriums on its use.

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that for the first time, a majority of Americans support life sentences instead of the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

The organization, Tennesseans Against the Death Penalty, has produced a new short film to advocate for alternatives to execution and to disprove the most popular myths surrounding the death penalty.

 

The next meeting for the Memphis chapter of Tennesseans Against the Death Penalty is scheduled for July 7th, 2014 at the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center.

 

 

 

Posted in Capital Defense, Death Penalty, Justice Reform

Students ‘Plunge’ into Access to Justice Disparities

They are high school students attending one of the most prestigious private schools in Memphis. While St. Mary’s is proud of its  generations of high-achieving students and alumnae, the Episcopal girls’ school also encourages civic involvement.

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Students with St. Mary’s Episcopal School learning about access to justice issues from assistant Shelby County Public Defender, Josh Spickler (speaking bottom right.)

That’s why a group of 18 girls took part in the school’s week-long “Service Plunge,” which included a stop at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.

Assistant Chaplain, Susan Whitten, coordinated the service/learning camp — students researched and discussed a topic area in the morning and connected with a related service organization in the afternoon to learn more or volunteer. The theme for this  year’s camp was “access” — access to quality food, housing, education, health and justice.

If people don’t have access or the knowledge of how to access those services or to get help, they really do fall between the cracks,” said Whitten. “That’s really one of the big ways we can change things in Memphis, is if we can help people have the knowledge of those services and for them to be able to access them.

The access to justice component of the plunge included watching a video about the Jericho project, a jail diversion program for those living with serious mental illness and substance use disorders.

Josh Spickler, Director of the Defender’s Resource Network for the public defender’s office, also gave a presentation that focused on mass incarceration statistics, as well as the systemic inequities for poor criminal defendants in Shelby County — the same people who are charged in the more than 30,000 cases handled annually by the Shelby County Public Defenders.

The young women in this camp asked excellent questions about our justice system,” said Spickler.  “They seemed to really struggle with why so few resources have been devoted to such a tremendous need in our community. That’s a question our lawyers struggle with everyday.”

Rising Sophomore Rachel Caldwell is on St. Mary’s mock trial team. She aspires to be a doctor, but she’s fascinated with what she’s learned about the public defender’s office.

Caldwell said she believes teenagers are ready and open to learn about difficult issues, such as racial disparities within the criminal justice system.  She believes not enough professionals think to share this kind of information with people her age … and Caldwell things they should.

We are the future. We are old enough to know. We’re not necessarily old enough to do something about it now, but we’ll be there someday,” says Caldwell. “If we have the correct knowledge and understanding to address the problem early enough, then we can do a good job.”

And that’s exactly why Chaplain Whitten coordinates this camp each year.

I’m hoping that when they hear from people like Josh [Spickler] that they’ll be inspired and think, ‘I can do that. I can be a public defender,’” says Whitten. “Getting the word out about these types of programs and developing these kinds of programs, like the Jericho project, like the kinds of great things that Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush is doing … that they’ll think, ‘I love Memphis and I want to come back. I want to do something like that.’  We have to show them a model and show them it’s possible. Then they can dream to become it.”

You can read about the other organizations these St. Mary’s campers visited in this Commercial Appeal article.

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Posted in Jericho, Justice Partners, Justice Reform, Outreach, Public Defender's Office, Public Defenders, Stephen C. Bush

‘Gideon’s Promise’ Visit Raises Awareness about Role of Public Defense in Memphis

Memphis stop focuses on overloaded criminal justice system, workload stress for public defenders and pressure on clients to plead guilty.
'Gideon's Promise' founder Jon Rapping speaking at a Memphis social about his organization's efforts.

‘Gideon’s Promise’ founder Jon Rapping speaking at a Memphis social about his organization’s efforts.

When ‘Gideon’s Promise‘ chose Memphis as a stop on its four-city tour, the goal was to raise awareness of the organization and the work of public defense.

The two-day visit did that and also strengthened the connection between one of the most innovative criminal defense training programs in the country, and Tennessee’s largest and oldest public defense system.

This summer, ten promising young attorneys from the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office will begin training with the Gideon’s Promise program at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. They will join a cohort of ten of their colleagues already in the program. With the addition of these newly trained attorneys, nearly 25% of the attorney staff at the public defender’s office will have received Gideon’s Promise training.

This type of “incremental” change is what Gideon’s Promise founder Jon Rapping and reform-minded chief public defenders, like Shelby County’s Stephen Bush, hope will help drive efforts to make the system more fair for both client and attorney … office-by-office throughout the South.

What many people may not realize is that the fate of client and attorney are closely aligned, particularly inside the public defender’s office,” says Stephen Bush. “That’s because an overworked criminal justice system too often results in negative results for both parties — public defenders are overwhelmed with cases and cannot consistently deliver the quality results they are willing and capable of delivering and clients that do want a trial are often discouraged to hold out for their day in court, because they could spend days, weeks, months … even years…. waiting.

During the visit, Commercial Appeal columnist David Waters, featured one of our office’s Gideon’s Promise attorneys. The article described the frustration both he and his clients experience in a system that incentivizes plea agreements and in which a jury trial often comes at too high a cost.

“If you can’t bond out, that changes everything. That’s when the pressure starts building to make a deal. You’re sitting in jail and your life is falling apart and it’s probably already a mess.”  – Ben Rush, Assistant Shelby County Public Defender (Commercial Appeal, 5/30/14.)

In an article published in the Memphis Flyer, Rapping emphasized that the goal of Gideon’s Promise is to provide new attorneys the tools to effectively fight for their clients, but also to provide the emotional support public defenders need.

I really started to see these systems where really passionate, young public defenders would go in for the right reasons and have that passion beaten out of them. They would either quit or resign to the status quo. This organization really developed to be a program that not only provides training but provides support and inspiration to these lawyers so they don’t lose their idealism.”  - Jon Rapping, Gideon’s Promise (Memphis Flyer, 5/31/14)

You can learn more about the Gideon’s Promise program here. You can also support the organization’s efforts by donating online.

Read the full articles about the Gideon’s Promise visit to Memphis here:
David Waters: Incarcerated Until Proven Guilty
Attorneys and Advocates Aim to Improve Public Defense 

 

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Posted in Gideon, Justice Partners, Justice Reform, Media, Outreach, Poverty, Public Defender's Office, Public Defenders, Stephen C. Bush

University of Memphis Law School Launches New Magazine, Features Public Defense

Alumni magazines are often just that – magazines only alumni would read. The University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphrey’s School of Law set out to do something more.

Screenshot 2014-05-19 10.49.00This week, the school launched its new publication, Memphis Law (ML).  Dean Peter Letsou says the goal of the school’s new publication is to communicate with alumni, students, lawyers and other supporters.  But Letsou and his staff  had one more mission — to produce stories about the law that appeal to readers beyond the legal community.

The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office is proud to have produced the cover story for the launch of ML.

That’s the story of Abe Fortas, the native Memphian who argued the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), which established the right to counsel for all people facing incarceration, regardless of ability to pay, and spawned public defense systems across the country. Later, as a Supreme Court Justice, Fortas wrote the majority opinions in Kent v. United States (1966), which extended due process rights to children and In re Gault (1967), which provided children similar constitutional protections as adults.

Despite these and a remarkable list of other accomplishments, Fortas is but a footnote in Memphis history. You can read about his astounding rise to power and stunning fall from grace and find out why some believe it’s time to revisit Fortas’ place in Memphis history.

We also contributed an article about what the right to counsel looks like in Memphis, 50 years after the Gideon v. Wainwright decision. While that 1963 decision sparked a flurry of change in the criminal justice system, the resources to defend against three decades of tough-on-crime justice policies have not kept up. There is, however, a glimmer of hope that our country and community are rounding a corner in criminal justice reform.

You can read these articles and many more  stories in the online edition of ML.

 

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Posted in Funding Public Defense, Gideon, Justice Partners, Justice Reform, Juvenile Justice, Mass Incarceration, Media, Outreach, Public Defender's Office, Stephen C. Bush

Supreme Court Decision Authored by Memphis Native Still Challenging Juvenile Courts 47 Years Later

It was 47 years ago this month that a Memphis native authored a Supreme Court opinion that would alter the course of juvenile justice in the U.S.
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Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas

On May 15th, 1967, Memphian and Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas  wrote the majority opinion for the In re Gault decision, which held that children were “persons” under the U.S. Constitution and should be treated fairly when faced with deprivation of liberty.

Specifically, it established the due process rights of children — that they have a right to counsel and were entitled to notice of charges against them and to confront and cross examine accusers.  The decision also firmly stated that children have a right against self-incrimination. In other words, it provided children the same due process rights as adults.

Fortas and the court sided with a 15 year-old Arizona boy named Gerald Gault who had been sentenced to six years in reform school … for a prank phone call. It was not just the outrageous outcome of this case, however, that eventually brought the Gault case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967; It was the entire legal process that led to the sentence:

  • Gault was removed from his home by law enforcement without notification to his parents.
  • Gault’s accuser was not present at the hearing.
  • No record was kept of the proceeding and no witnesses were sworn in before testimony.
  • Gault was never advised of his rights and no attorney was present.

At the time, the maximum sentence in Arizona for an adult accused of the same crime —  a $50 fine and two months in jail. Much less than the six years Gault was given.

Gault’s parents filed a petition for his release, which eventually reached the Supreme Court.

On the anniversary of a court decision made more than four decades earlier, it is ironic that the the Department of Justice would currently be in the process of enforcing this opinion in Memphis — an opinion authored by a Memphis native. In its 2012 investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court, the DOJ repeatedly cited Gault to support charges that essential rights had not been extended to children in Memphis and Shelby County.

“More than 40 years ago, the Supreme Court established the parameters of due process for children facing delinquency proceedings and thereby subject to the ‘awesome prospect of incarceration.’ In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 36 (1967). The Court held that children must be afforded the right to counsel, the right to notice of the charges, the right to be free from self-incrimination, and the right to confront witnesses

“During our investigation, we found pre-Gault era practices in JCMSC [Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County] that violate the due process rights of children facing delinquency proceedings. These practices violate the children’s civil rights.”

Investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court, U.S. Department of Justice Civil Right Division, April 26, 2012.

At the start of this year, the Shelby County Public Defender’s new Juvenile Defender Unit began taking cases in juvenile court. This marked the first time in more than 30 years that the Public Defender’s Office has been formally involved in Juvenile Court. You can read more about the immersive training the Juvenile Defender Unit and some private attorneys are undergoing to learn the latest practices in this highly specialized area of law:

Juvenile Defenders Gather in Memphis, Train to Fight Transfers

Tennessee Lawyers Learn Latest National Juvenile Defense Practices in Memphis

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Revisiting Fortas

You can also learn more about the role Memphis native Abe Fortas played in developing new standards for the defense of children and adults in this inaugural edition of Memphis Law, a new magazine published by the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. Our office wrote the cover story about Fortas’ contributions to the right to counsel in our country. We also wrote an article about the state of public defense in Memphis,today. If you’re an alumni or supporter, the magazine will be delivered to your home. Or you can check out the issue online: ‘Memphis Law’ Inaugural Issue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted in Justice Partners, Justice Reform, Juvenile Justice, Public Defender's Office
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