New Report Shows Outdated System Failing Lawyers, Indigent Clients in Tennnessee

tba-logoAnyone facing criminal charges that could result in imprisonment has the right to an attorney — if he cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed and paid for by the government. That right was established in 1963 by the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright.

But a study just released by the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA) reveals that fewer private attorneys say they are willing to accept this work, because the pay is too low and paperwork too burdensome.

That’s bad news for communities across Tennessee, because it results in fewer private attorneys willing to accept appointed cases. In turn, those attorneys still willing to accept cases may have even less time to spend on appointed cases as a result of the burden of additional clients. In addition, some appointed attorneys may be unwilling to spend adequate time on a case for which there will be inadequate compensation. Of course, the person facing criminal charges bears most of the burden in a system like this as poor advocacy results in more time spent awaiting disposition, longer sentences and more wrongful convictions.

A 2013 study released by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) ties compensation to fair representation: “The attorney’s right to fair compensation and the defendant’s rights are ‘inextricably linked’ and ‘[t]he relationship between an attorney’s compensation and the quality of his or her representation cannot be ignored.'”

appointed compensationIn Shelby County, appointed counsel are more often than not, public defenders.  In fact, the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office handles more than 35,000 cases each year. But in cases of conflict (for example, when two defendants are jointly charged with a crime or the victim in the case was a former client of the public defender) a judge may appoint a private attorney to defend an indigent client.

Private attorneys in the Memphis area are also appointed in the majority of the cases involving children, as the Shelby County Public Defender’s new, specially-trained Juvenile Defender Unit only has the capacity to handle a portion of the approximately 4,000 children facing delinquency charges in Juvenile Court each year. In a poor, urban community like Shelby County, a healthy appointed counsel system is a critical part of the criminal justice system.

The TBA report reveals an appointed counsel system in Tennessee that is far from healthy. The TBA is currently working to raise the compensation rate from the current $40 per out-of-court hour for non-capital cases, $75 per hour for out-of-court on non-capital cases. The rate has not changed since 1994 and according to the TBA, this makes Tennessee court-appointed attorneys among the lowest paid in the country.

A national study of compensation for appointed counsel shows that Tennessee is among the states paying at the bottom end of the fee scale.

“The average rate of compensation for felony cases in the 30 states that have established a statewide compensation rate is less than $65 an hour with some states paying as little as $40 an hour” — from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) study Rationing Justice: The Underfunding of Assigned Counsel Systems

 

Screenshot 2014-11-19 16.40.03

Bar graph from TBA.org

Not only are Tennessee appointed counsel paid at an unusually low rate — lawyers in the survey also cited state-mandated limits on the total fee that are too low to provide adequate counsel.  The Tennessee Supreme Court’s Rule 13, which contains the rules for appointed counsel, caps maximum compensation on most non-capital cases at $500-$1,500, depending on the type of offense.  Nearly 60% of the survey respondents reported that they “frequently” or “always” reached the compensation cap.

In addition to limited compensation for their legal work, respondents to the TBA survey reported spending an unreasonable amount of time preparing and submitting their fee claims to the state — some as much as 5 hours on compensation paperwork and submission.  In fact, more than 75% of the attorneys admitted that they had not even bothered submitting claims for payment, because it took too much time to file.

Given the low fee and administrative burden, it’s not surprising that one-third of the survey respondents said they have stopped taking appointed cases. A vast majority of that group said it was directly related to low compensation.

The TBA will be using the results of this study to continue to push for changes to Rule 13, and how private, appointed counsel is compensated.

Full reports here: 

You can read the results of the TBA survey here.

Click here to read the TN Supreme Court’s Rule 13, which sets the rate for appointed counsel.

Find the entire NACDL report “Rationing Justice:The Underfunding of Assigned Counsel Systems” by clicking here.

CORRECTION: The original post stated that non-capital case rate was a blanket $40 per hour. The actual rate is $40 per hour for out of court, trial preparation and $50 per hour for in-court work. 

Posted in Funding Public Defense, Justice Reform

Shelby County Public Defender Represents West Tennessee on State Board

Eric Elms

Eric Elms, Assistant Shelby County Public Defender

Assistant Shelby County Public Defender, Eric Elms, has been selected as a West Tennessee representative for the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (TACDL).

Elms was chosen for his work as a lawyer in Shelby County’s Drug Court for the past 12 years and his efforts to promote the local Memphis chapter of TACDL.

TACDL is a non-profit organization that provides education, training and support to the lawyers representing people accused of crime. The association also advocates fair and effective criminal justice in the courts and legislature.

“The experience and insight gained from his work with the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office will benefit the defense bar across the state,” said Suanne Bone, Executive Director of TACDL. “We look forward to Eric’s service and the engagement of all the Public Defenders in Shelby County.”

Elms will serve a 3-year term on the board. He joins fellow assistant Shelby County Public Defender, Kamilah Turner, who is serving her third year on the TACDL Board of Directors.

You can read more about the work of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office on JustCity.org

Eric Elms Media Release PDF

 

Posted in Media Release, Public Defender's Office, Public Defenders

Shelby County Public Defender Addresses Journalists on National Panel

Stephen Bush, Shelby County Public Defender

Stephen Bush, Shelby County Public Defender

Earlier this month, Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush spoke to journalists from across the country at City University New York.  Bush was an invited panelist for the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice symposium entitled “Kids, Crime and Justice” held in New York City.

The symposium was designed to help journalists apply research and best practices to reporting on juvenile justice issues.  Bush was one of twenty presenters invited to New York to address reporters from print, broadcast and online. These twenty-five journalists were selected for a Tow Foundation fellowship based on their interest in covering juvenile justice related stories.

Bush was invited to discuss research involving early brain development in children and the traumatic effects of poverty and exposure to violence and abuse. He was also asked to address how these factors can and should influence treatment and sentencing.

The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office was required to supervise juvenile defense by the 2012 Memorandum of Agreement between the Department of Justice and Shelby County.  A new, specially-trained unit of the public defender’s office began taking cases in Juvenile Court early this year. This marked the first time the public defender has been responsible for juvenile defense since the 1970s.

Screenshot 2014-10-16 01.03.38You can read more about the conference in this article from The Crime Report or by following #KidsCrimeJustice on Twitter.

You can also listen to Bush discuss the challenges and opportunities surrounding juvenile justice in Shelby County in this NPR report that aired in September.

 

Posted in #SeeJustice, Justice Partners, Justice Reform, Juvenile Justice, Media, Poverty, Public Defender's Office, Stephen Bush, Stephen C. Bush

JustCity Roundtable: Public Defenders as Reformers in the Wake of Ferguson

Less than a week after the recent unrest began in Ferguson, Missouri, a determined group of young public defenders released a scathing white paper that exposed the widespread unfairness and oppressive nature of the municipal courts in St. Louis County. In the days since, much has been made of a system that disproportionately burdens poor people of color with fines, costs and fees and has likely contributed to continuing protests in the St. Louis area.

Arch City Defenders Flyer #ferguson

Join us after work in Memphis’ first maker space at Forge Memphis as we interview Thomas Harvey about his work on this issue and some of the reforms that are underway.

We only have 50 seats available — so RSVP with this Eventbrite!

The Arch City Defenders opened for business five years ago when each of its three founding attorneys still had day jobs. Their mission was to serve the homeless community in St. Louis, many of whom were struggling under unrealistic financial burdens imposed by the now-infamous municipal court systems of St. Louis County. This unique, non-profit law firm has grown into several employees and now occupies its founders full-time in a client-centered practice funded by contracts with local governments, grants and donations. They are a 501(c)(3) organization.

When ACD released the white paper in August, they found themselves in the national spotlight. The paper details the gross inequities of the more than 80 municipal court systems in St. Louis County that collect fines and fees from the area’s poorest residents. Some of these municipalities depend on this revenue to fund as much as half of their operations including police departments.  As a result of this eye-opening research and years of work in these courts, the attorneys of the Arch City Defenders have been featured by Newsweek, NBC, NPR, MSNBC, Huffington Post and the paper has led to reforms within some of the municipal governments, including Ferguson.

This JustCity Roundtable is hosted by the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office with generous support from Forge Memphis and the Assisi Foundation. The Roundtable is an occasional gathering of community leaders interested in leveraging the best ideas in criminal justice to improve our city.

Read more stories of justice on JustCity.org and follow us on Facebook and Twitter @DefendShelbyCo

To learn more about the Arch City Defenders, click this link.  To read the white paper, click here. To find out how the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office has worked to combat similar issues in Memphis, read this JustCity.org blog post about the innovative Street Court program.

RSVP with Eventbrite! 

 

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Posted in #SeeJustice, Justice Partners, Justice Reform, Outreach, Poverty, Public Defender's Office

Nationally Renowned Artist Brings Exhibit Featuring Incarcerated Children to Memphis

When juveniles are involved in violent acts — our tendency is to react in fear — and call for swift, harsh punishment. But according to our juvenile justice laws, we are charged with working to rehabilitate youth.

Developments in brain science in the last 30 years reinforce the mission of rehabilitation — that the minds of young people are malleable and primed for continued development and change. Yet, with this mission and what we know, the U.S. still leads the world in incarcerating children.

This weekend, artist Richard Ross brings his photography to Memphis to show what juvenile justice looks like in this country — and his message is stark and unblinking.

Some may be less inclined to worry about inhumane detention conditions when young people are accused of unthinkable acts of violence, but a recent study found that 75% of young people held in detention in the U.S. are kept in these often poor and sometimes abusive conditions … for non-violent offenses.

Richard Ross

This Friday, September 19th, Richard Ross will give a lecture about his work at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis.  His work will be displayed in Memphis through November.  Also on exhibit will be the work of local artist, Penny Dodd, who has interviewed more than 800 Memphis teens — as they give us insight into their young, complicated lives.

From the "Juvenile-in-Justice" exhibit by Richard Ross

From the “Juvenile-in-Justice” exhibit by Richard Ross

Friday, September 19th

5-7pm Opening reception @ the University of Memphis College of Fine Arts

Performance during reception by the latest Music Production workshop of storybooth

and also by the Visible Community Music School

7pm  Richard Ross Lecture

Saturday, September 20th

10am – Noon  Morning Coffee with the artists

Exhibit will remain open until November 26th, 2014.

Read this article by Richard Ross on the popular political website, The Hill.

Posted in Juvenile Justice, Outreach

Share Ideas That Help Build Just Cities with #SeeJustice

Often, we talk about how the criminal justice system isn’t working. That’s a critical discussion — and there needs to be even more of it.

Certainly, the recent violence and tension in Ferguson, Missouri have put criminal justice reform at the top of the national agenda.

That’s why now is a good time to spotlight efforts that are working and making cities across the country more just.

Screenshot 2014-08-24 23.19.04

That’s how systems change … by people learning from one another and adapting innovative solutions for their own communities and organizations.

So, when you see justice, tell everyone about it with the hashtag #SeeJustice on Facebook and Twitter. Let’s talk about what works.

#SeeJustice.Brand.Final.Large

 

 

 

 

Posted in #SeeJustice, Justice Partners, Justice Reform, Prison Reform

TN Justice Reform Task Force Criticized for Lack of Defense Attorneys, Minorities

Screenshot 2014-08-27 12.53.21In today’s Commercial Appeal: A story examining the makeup of a new Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism.

A media release from the State of Tennessee acknowledges that the state’s sentencing structure has not been changed in more than two decades.  Tennessee joins a number of states re-examining outdated sentencing laws, but today’s story in the Commercial Appeal reveals that some are concerned about which groups are not adequately represented in this reform effort.

The story, by reporter Samantha Bryson, looks at both the racial disparity on the task force and the lack of perspective from an important justice reform voice — defense attorneys.

Only one person on the committee, Cannon County Public Defender Gerald Melton, currently works at the defense side of the table. Police chiefs, judges, sheriffs and district attorneys account for 18 of its members, who serve alongside other lawmakers and a victim’s rights advocate. There appear to be no ex-offenders or advocacy groups for ex-offenders represented. The group is also about 90 percent white and overwhelmingly Republican, in a state where 44 percent of its 30,349 inmates are black.” –  ‘Haslam’s Sentencing Reforms Committee is Short on Defense Attorneys,” The Commercial Appeal.

You can read the complete article here. (Paywall)
Click here to read an editorial by prominent Memphis defense attorney, Michael Working.
You can also click here to see the list of those serving on the task force.

 

Posted in Justice Reform, Mass Incarceration, Media, Prison Reform
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