‘Gideon’s Promise’ Visit Raises Awareness about Role of Public Defense in Memphis

Memphis stop focuses on overloaded criminal justice system, workload stress for public defenders and pressure on clients to plead guilty.
'Gideon's Promise' founder Jon Rapping speaking at a Memphis social about his organization's efforts.
‘Gideon’s Promise’ founder Jon Rapping speaking at a Memphis social about his organization’s efforts.

When ‘Gideon’s Promise‘ chose Memphis as a stop on its four-city tour, the goal was to raise awareness of the organization and the work of public defense.

The two-day visit did that and also strengthened the connection between one of the most innovative criminal defense training programs in the country, and Tennessee’s largest and oldest public defense system.

This summer, ten promising young attorneys from the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office will begin training with the Gideon’s Promise program at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. They will join a cohort of ten of their colleagues already in the program. With the addition of these newly trained attorneys, nearly 25% of the attorney staff at the public defender’s office will have received Gideon’s Promise training.

This type of “incremental” change is what Gideon’s Promise founder Jon Rapping and reform-minded chief public defenders, like Shelby County’s Stephen Bush, hope will help drive efforts to make the system more fair for both client and attorney … office-by-office throughout the South.

What many people may not realize is that the fate of client and attorney are closely aligned, particularly inside the public defender’s office,” says Stephen Bush. “That’s because an overworked criminal justice system too often results in negative results for both parties — public defenders are overwhelmed with cases and cannot consistently deliver the quality results they are willing and capable of delivering and clients that do want a trial are often discouraged to hold out for their day in court, because they could spend days, weeks, months … even years…. waiting.

During the visit, Commercial Appeal columnist David Waters, featured one of our office’s Gideon’s Promise attorneys. The article described the frustration both he and his clients experience in a system that incentivizes plea agreements and in which a jury trial often comes at too high a cost.

“If you can’t bond out, that changes everything. That’s when the pressure starts building to make a deal. You’re sitting in jail and your life is falling apart and it’s probably already a mess.”  – Ben Rush, Assistant Shelby County Public Defender (Commercial Appeal, 5/30/14.)

In an article published in the Memphis Flyer, Rapping emphasized that the goal of Gideon’s Promise is to provide new attorneys the tools to effectively fight for their clients, but also to provide the emotional support public defenders need.

I really started to see these systems where really passionate, young public defenders would go in for the right reasons and have that passion beaten out of them. They would either quit or resign to the status quo. This organization really developed to be a program that not only provides training but provides support and inspiration to these lawyers so they don’t lose their idealism.”  – Jon Rapping, Gideon’s Promise (Memphis Flyer, 5/31/14)

You can learn more about the Gideon’s Promise program here. You can also support the organization’s efforts by donating online.

Read the full articles about the Gideon’s Promise visit to Memphis here:
David Waters: Incarcerated Until Proven Guilty
Attorneys and Advocates Aim to Improve Public Defense 


University of Memphis Law School Launches New Magazine, Features Public Defense

Alumni magazines are often just that – magazines only alumni would read. The University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphrey’s School of Law set out to do something more.

Screenshot 2014-05-19 10.49.00This week, the school launched its new publication, Memphis Law (ML).  Dean Peter Letsou says the goal of the school’s new publication is to communicate with alumni, students, lawyers and other supporters.  But Letsou and his staff  had one more mission — to produce stories about the law that appeal to readers beyond the legal community.

The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office is proud to have produced the cover story for the launch of ML.

That’s the story of Abe Fortas, the native Memphian who argued the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), which established the right to counsel for all people facing incarceration, regardless of ability to pay, and spawned public defense systems across the country. Later, as a Supreme Court Justice, Fortas wrote the majority opinions in Kent v. United States (1966), which extended due process rights to children and In re Gault (1967), which provided children similar constitutional protections as adults.

Despite these and a remarkable list of other accomplishments, Fortas is but a footnote in Memphis history. You can read about his astounding rise to power and stunning fall from grace and find out why some believe it’s time to revisit Fortas’ place in Memphis history.

We also contributed an article about what the right to counsel looks like in Memphis, 50 years after the Gideon v. Wainwright decision. While that 1963 decision sparked a flurry of change in the criminal justice system, the resources to defend against three decades of tough-on-crime justice policies have not kept up. There is, however, a glimmer of hope that our country and community are rounding a corner in criminal justice reform.

You can read these articles and many more  stories in the online edition of ML.


Earn CLE, Learn about the Future of Public Defense in Memphis

Fifty-years ago, a Supreme Court decision sparked a transformation of the criminal justice system.

Today, an army of young public defenders is training to finish the job. Mark your calendar for May 29th & May 30th —  two-days that could open your eyes to the future of public defense in Memphis …  and across the country.

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Gideon’s Promise, a program that trains young public defenders working in the South, has chosen Memphis as a stop on its four city tour. Organizers are trying to raise awareness of the organization’s mission to revolutionize our country’s broken criminal defense system.

The tour includes New York City, Washington, D.C., Houston and Memphis.  Click here to read more about the work Gideon’s Promise is already doing in Memphis.

The founder of Gideon’s Promise, Jon Rapping, is hosting a social at Local Midtown on Thursday, May 29th from 6:00 – 8:30pm.

This event is free and open to the public, so please, invite your friends.

Whether it’s your colleagues in the legal community or friends interested in learning how a better public defense system can lead to a better Memphis, this social should be enlightening and fun.

You must RSVP to attend.  Please click the link here to RSVP.


The tour continues the next day, Friday, May 30th.  That’s when you’ll have an opportunity to pick up affordable CLE for viewing the award-winning documentary, ‘Gideon’s Army.’

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The Shelby County Public Defender’s office is proud to partner with Baker Donelson, the Memphis Bar Association, the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law and Gideon’s Promise to bring this award-winning documentary to Memphis.  The film will be preceded by an esteemed panel — Shelby County Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush, Gideon’s Promise founder Jon Rapping and one of our office’s own Gideon’s Promise attorneys.

The CLE will be followed by a brief happy hour — complimentary food, beer and wine provided by Baker Donelson.

This informative afternoon will provide 2.5 hours of CLE for only $25.

When:  Friday, May 30th 2:30 – 6:00 pm

Where: University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, Wade Auditorium

You can sign up online with the Memphis Bar Association here! 

Download this form to sign up for CLE