Legendary Civil Rights Organization Looks to Public Defenders to Fight Mass Incarceration

Nearly fifty years after his assassination in this city, the organization founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reignited King’s “Poor People’s Campaign” in Memphis at their 59th annual convention.

One of the key initiatives will be raising funding, support and awareness on behalf of public defenders through a partnership with Gideon’s Promise, the Atlanta based training program dedicated to building the next generation of public defenders.

SCLC President/CEO Dr. Charles Steele, Jr. announced a formal partnership with Gideon’s Promise during the convention’s opening ceremony.

“Our struggle for civil and human rights is far from finished. Nowhere is this truer than in our criminal justice system. It is a system that is almost exclusively reserved for the poor and disproportionately for black and brown people,” said Dr. Steele.  “Public defenders serve as the advocates for these men, women, and children. If they do not have support, they cannot help our most vulnerable communities fight back against this unjust system.”

Gideon’s Promise founder, Jon Rapping, spoke at the convention and called the criminal justice system one of our country’s most vital pieces of unfinished civil rights work. He said that with more resources and support, public defenders can be on the front lines of this fight.

“Public defenders are almost completely overlooked in our national conversation about criminal justice reform. This omission is fatal to a comprehensive strategy to have equal justice,” said Rapping. “We are grateful to Dr. Steele for recognizing the critical role public defenders must play in this important civil rights struggle and for inviting us to partner with SCLC to transform criminal justice in America.”

Rapping said that Memphis is one of its largest partner cities. Nearly a third of the Shelby County Public Defender’s office has taken part in Gideon’s Promise training. Lawyers from our office attending the event were asked to stand and be recognized.

“These people work every day to honor this critically important civil rights work,” said Rapping.

In a joint press release, Gideon’s Promise and the SCLC outlined the goals of the partnership: To provide training and support for public defenders,  raise awareness of the critical role public defenders must play in a broader strategy to transform criminal justice in America, and build strong partnerships between public defenders and the communities they serve.

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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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