The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office was established in 1917.
We are the third oldest public defender system in the country, and we take pride in our legacy of protecting the rights of those who cannot afford a lawyer. Under new leadership for the first time in almost three decades, this office will look to that legacy as it prepares to move into a new era of indigent defense, one that takes advantage of the defender’s unique position to address the clients’ specific criminal charges and leverage this contact into an opportunity for both the individual and our city. We are working to become a client-centered, community-oriented defender office that serves the needs of Shelby County. This is the concept behind our motto: Justice for a New Generation.
About our Chief Public Defender. Stephen Bush is the 10th Chief Public Defender for Shelby County, and directs the largest and oldest public defense system in Tennessee. He is the principal architect of The Jericho Project, a national jail diversion model for detainees with serious mental illness and substance use disorders, for which he received the 2010 Frank G. Clement award for community service from the Tennessee Association of Mental Health Organizations. Bush serves on the American Council of Chief Defenders, the Shelby County Crime Commission, the Board of Trustees for Memphis Mental Health Institute, and is a fellow of the Memphis Bar Foundation.
Mr. Bush frequently speaks in national criminal justice/behavioral health venues, including conferences hosted by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, the Council of State Governments, SAMHSA, the National GAINS Center, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. He is a graduate of the University of Memphis School of Law and Millsaps College.
About our office. We currently serve our clients in a traditional public defender office model. More than 75 attorneys act as trial counsel, appellate counsel, supervisors and administrators. The majority of our attorney staff are trial counsel and are assigned to one of nine General Sessions Courts (handling misdemeanor cases and felony preliminary hearings) or one of ten circuit-level Criminal Courts (handling jury trials). Attorneys work within an assigned courtroom accepting appointments individually on a rotating basis. There are a number of attorneys not assigned to one specific courtroom; those attorneys make up the Felony Team (General Sessions Courts only), Capital Defense Team, Outlying Courts Team and Mental Health Special Litigation Team. The Appellate Team consists of four attorneys, one of whom is a supervising attorney. Overall, the office has six supervising attorneys in addition to the Chief Public Defender and the Deputy Administrator. Our office typically represents more than 30,000 people each year.
About our community. Shelby County, Tennessee is tucked into the far southwestern corner of the state. It is the largest of Tennessee’s 95 counties in both population and geographic area; it is also home to the state’s largest city, Memphis. Shelby County and seven counties in Western Tennessee, northern Mississippi and eastern Arkansas make up the Memphis Metropolitan Statistical Area, the 41st largest MSA in the country. With a population of approximately 1.3 million people, it is one of the more racially and economically diverse metropolitan areas in the southeastern United States.
The population of Shelby County is 52.3% African American and 43.6% white with small but growing Latino, Asian and other racial minority communities. This rich diversity is challenged by the city’s deep pockets of poverty — 20.1% of the population lives below the poverty line. Over the past decade, market forces and relocation programs have moved many poor residents into outlying areas away from the city center. Our clients, the majority of whom are poor, undereducated and living in at-risk neighborhoods, are increasingly spread out across the community to the extent that an estimated half of the neighborhoods in Memphis are now affected by poverty. This makes it more difficult for our clients to reach the services they need to move beyond the circumstances that may have brought them into contact with our office, and onto more productive lives.