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:

Why I Come to Work | High Ground News

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

Screenshot 2014-07-09 16.51.31

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.





Shelby County Public Defender’s Office Awards First Expungement Grant

Taurus did so well in the temporary job she held for two years, that her employer wanted to hire her permanently.  She filled out the paperwork and her employer ran a background check. Then she was promptly … let go.

That’s because a felony conviction from 2007 showed up on her record.  Taurus had long ago completed her probation and diversion requirements for the conviction and paid all of her court costs.  She was also eligible for expungement, but there was a catch.  She couldn’t afford the $450 filing fee. So her record remained public and marred by that single conviction.

Now Taurus was not only denied full-time employment — she also lost the temporary job she’d been holding, successfully, for two years.

“It’s been very difficult for me to get other employment.  It’s difficult to get housing, because I don’t have any employment,” said Taurus. “The housing I could afford, most of them do background checks.  So it was very difficult for me to get a new start.  I am trying  to start over again, and every time I try to pursue employment, that is the only thing hindering me. My record. Even temporary agencies! I went to every temporary agency in Memphis.  Once my background hit, they did not send me to any work, period.  None. Not even for short-term employment. I can’t even work at fast food restaurants! It has been hard for me to get my foot in the door.”

Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Josh Spickler with the first grant recipient of the Clean Slate Fund
Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Josh Spickler (right) with Taurus, the first grant recipient of the Clean Slate Fund

But in a few weeks, all that will change. If Taurus doesn’t get a job, it will have nothing to do with a criminal record. That’s because her record will have been successfully expunged with the help of a new program at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office funded by the Memphis Bar Foundation.  It’s called the Clean Slate Fund and last week, Taurus became the first grant recipient.

The Clean Slate Fund offers qualified applicants a $350 grant to cover the expungement fees charged by the State of Tennessee.  Taurus qualified for expungement under Tennessee’s diversion law, which requires a $450 fee. So she came up with $100 to add to the grant amount.

But the Clean Slate grant will cover the entire fee required in a new expungement law passed in 2012. This law applies to those who didn’t qualify under the old diversion rules. When crafted, the legislation promised to help hundreds of people clear their records. But it was so  narrowly written, that only a few dozen Memphians even qualified. Of those who did, many could not afford the filing fee.

Why? In many cases, as it was for Taurus’, they couldn’t get a job with a criminal record.

Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Josh Spickler is directing the Clean Slate Fund.  He’s been in contact with the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office, which executes the expungement applications under the new law. Spickler says the D.A’.s office has approved a stack of expungement petitions that meet the requirements but have been unable to file them. Most likely, because the petitioners can’t pay the fee.

Now the Clean Slate Fund can help some of these applicants clear that final, financial hurdle

“If the Memphis Bar Association and the attorneys of Memphis, committed to giving to its foundation, can contribute $350 to an individual like Taurus,” says Spickler, “it can take her out of the cycle of persistent unemployment and help put her in a better position to get a job. That will save the community the enormous resources it takes to support someone who cannot support herself.  This fund can remove a barrier so an individual can become a productive citizen. It’s a no brainer to spend a little bit of money to put a person on a better trajectory.”

If you or someone you know might be qualified for expungement, please choose from the following options:

1.  To apply for expungement of your Tennessee record, please click this link for information and an application form.

2.  If you have already filled out the paperwork and qualified for expungement of your Tennessee record but cannot afford the fee, you can click this link to download a Clean Slate grant application. Fill out and mail to:

The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office
2nd floor, 201 Poplar Ave.
Memphis, TN 38103
Attn: Josh Spickler

3.  Candidates who have already filled out the paper and qualified for expungement of their Tennessee record but cannot afford the fee can also start the grant application process online here: