Task Force Urges Tennessee to Reform Public Defense

“If you are poor, your lawyer is often overworked and grossly underfunded” via The Commercial Appeal
Shelby County Assistant Public Defenders Melody Dernocoeur, Phil Harvey featured in the Commercial Appeal.

This week, a task force appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court to examine indigent defense, specifically how the defense of poor people is funded, released its findings. The task force has met and conducted listening tours for the past 16 months.

Tennessee has a hybrid system in which Public Defender office’s handle the vast majority of counsel for the poor. Private attorneys are appointed to cases these offices cannot take, such as a case with co-defendants and one person is represented by the public defender.

“Based on the task force report, I’m hopeful Tennessee will finally establish reasonable workload controls that ensure we can meet the minimum ethical obligations that all lawyers owe their clients.”  –  Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush

 

Among the top recommendations from the task force via The Commercial Appeal:

  • Raise the rate of private attorneys appointed to represent the poor from $40-50/hour to $75-125/hour.  Currently, Tennessee’s compensation rate is among the lowest in the country.
  • Eliminate the caps on how much time can be spent on an appointed case.
  • Develop a training and certification process for new lawyers, to ensure standardization of skills
  • Creation of a commission to oversee all appointed counsel, including the defense of children.

We look forward to seeing the legislation that will come from this report and are hopeful it will lead to every Tennessean, regardless of income, receiving a zealous defense in our criminal justice system.

You can read the entire article in this story via The Commercial Appeal

You can also read the entire report here.

 

Public Defense Week: A tribute to Clarence Gideon

We owe our American ideal of public defense to an aging drifter and a brilliant lawyer from Memphis

This week, our office and defender systems across the country celebrated Public Defense Week in collaboration with the National Association for Public Defense. Each day this week, we focused on a vital issue our public defenders and clients face: excessive bail, fines & fees; abolishing the death penalty; racial injustice & implicit bias and juvenile justice. All of this leading up to today — the anniversary of the Gideon v Wainwright (1963) decision.
 
Beginning at age 16, Clarence Earl Gideon spent much of his life in and out of prison for thefts, burglaries and robberies. In fact, his first experience with incarceration came by way of his mother, who hauled him into a Hannibal, Missouri jail for running away from home. Throughout his 61 years, Gideon would serve time in Missouri, Kansas and Texas prisons. His final, and what would become, pivotal brush with the law was a 1961 arrest for allegedly breaking into the vending machines in a Panama City, Florida, pool hall.
 
Gideon claimed innocence and asked for a court-appointed attorney. The judge denied his request, citing state law, which only allowed for court-appointed counsel in capital cases. So Gideon, a high school dropout, was left to defend himself. Not surprisingly, he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. Determined, Gideon filed a habeus corpus petition with the Florida Supreme Court claiming the lack of a court advocate was unconstitutional. The Florida court denied his petition, but the U.S. Supreme Court eventually reviewed it.
 
Justice Abe Fortas

In 1963, Memphian Abe Fortas and a team of highly respected lawyers argued Clarence Gideon’s case, and the court issued a unanimous decision finding that his conviction was unconstitutional. The Court held that the Sixth Amendment provides the right to appointed counsel in state felony cases. The Court further held that providing counsel for indigent defendants is an essential element of a “fair trial” and that because of the Fourteenth Amendment, the states are responsible for meeting this mandate.

Clarence Gideon was eventually given appointed counsel on the original charges and was acquitted.
 
March 18th, 2017 marks the 54th Anniversary of Gideon vs Wainwright (1963).
 
But the legacy of Gideon stands on uneven ground in Shelby County and throughout this country. The Shelby County Public Defender system and many across the U.S. are underfunded and overflowing with poor clients. It is a scenario too often thrust upon the backs of the poor and uneducated – the Clarence Earl Gideons of today.
 
You may never need the help of a public defender, but the safety of our community and, certainly, the health of our democracy, depends on everyone, regardless of income, receiving a fair shake in the courtroom.
 
Read more about the Gideon case and its ties to Memphis here:
 
 
 
You can see how public defenders across the country celebrated public defense and shined a light on issues facing defenders and their clients by looking at these hashtags on Facebook and Twitter #DefendGideon #TippingtheScales #CelebratePublicDefense
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Celebrate Public Defense!

Join our office and defenders across the country as we recognize the lawyers, investigators, social workers, mediation specialists, law clerks, paralegals and support staff who fight on behalf of their clients every day.

The Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender are powered by more than 80 lawyers and 40 support staff and managers. Sounds like a huge staff. Until you realize those attorneys represent 35 thousand people a year. Many of our lawyers have caseloads more than twice that recommended by the U.S. Justice Department. Try protecting someone’s constitutional rights when you have 900 cases.

Some of the best trained lawyers from some of the best law schools in the country work in our office. We either need more of them or if you ask us, we’d rather have a smaller, smarter and more humane criminal justice system – one that points people toward more productive lives instead of setting them up for a quick return to jail.

For nearly a century — the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office has provided zealous counsel to tens of thousands of people. We are proud of this tradition and are dedicated to building upon it. You can watch this video about the incredible story that sparked the founding of the 3rd oldest public defense system in the country.

During this Public Defense Week our office and defenders across the country in collaboration with the National Association for Public Defense​ are sharing stories and statistics to honor the anniversary of Gideon v Wainwright (1963) the landmark Supreme Court decision that established public defender offices across the country. Go to these hashtags on Facebook and Twitter #CelebratePublicDefense #DefendGideon #TippingtheScales

We need lawmakers, community leaders and all of our neighbors to support the work of our public defenders and staff. We need you to fight policies that decimate neighborhoods and put scores of people, disproportionately people of color, in cages. We need people like you to fight these policies that negatively affect their lives and those of their loved ones long after they’ve completed their sentences.

Here’s what you can do to support public defenders and their clients:

Follow the progress of this proposal from the Chief Justice of the TN Supreme Court to overhaul Tennessee’s bloated and outdate criminal sentencing laws.

Fight any efforts in the Tennessee legislature to cut public defense funding.Call your legislators and tell them you support State Representative Raumesh Akbari​’s bill to cut felony conviction expungement fees in half.

Support those who support the work of public defenders and their clients. Donate to Just CityNational Association of Public Defense and Gideon’s Promise.

Listen to the voices of public defenders and the challenges our clients face every day:

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