Shelby County Public Defender recognized by Tennessee Chapter of National Association of Social Workers
“The arc of the moral universe is long… in my experience, it most often bends toward justice when we embrace and bring forward the work that you do.”
Building upon one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s most powerful ideas about justice, Shelby County’s Public Defender spoke to the importance of connecting those caught in the criminal justice system with social services.
Bush was recognized as the NASW-TN Public Official of the Year for his role in creating the Jericho Project and his support of social work as a key component of client-centered defense.
The Jericho Project is a nationally-recognized jail diversion program for people with serious mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Most recently, the Jericho Project was selected as one of the top Criminal Justice Innovations in 2015 by the Center for Court Innovation and the National Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
Earlier this year, Bush accepted a board position on the ACE Awareness Council, an organization dedicated to understanding and raising awareness in Shelby County about the effects of early childhood trauma on brain development and the connection to health and behavioral disorders.
Kena Vassar learned the importance of connecting people in the criminal justice system to needed social services on the job — working with Shelby County’s Jericho Project. Since 2008, Kena has been serving people living with serious mental illness and substance use disorders, who often cycle through the justice system repeatedly.
She and a team of specialists from the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office and a local mental health service provider develop “community linkage plans” for people in the Shelby County Jail. These plans are presented to the court in support of community-based, alternative sentences, and they connect Jericho clients to needed services after release.
The average recidivism rate among people with serious mental illness in contact with the criminal justice system hovers around 80%. Jericho consistently cuts that rate in half.
Last month, Kena was recognized for her dedication to guiding others in this field when she was named the 2015 Masters of Social Work Field Instructor of the Year by the University of Memphis Department of Social Work.
She was honored at a symposium held by the University of Memphis at the Doubletree Inn in Memphis. Kena was nominated by Stephanie Lovins, a Masters of Social Work (MSW) candidate from the U of M.
“Kena always was willing to help me learn and guide me,” Stephanie Lovins, former Jericho Project intern. “She epitomizes what social work is when it comes to helping persons who are vulnerable and oppressed.”
Stephanie is the first MSW student to intern with the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. The office is moving toward including more social work into its practice. For the first time, the public defender’s office has hired two full-time social workers. They are currently serving clients in the office’s new juvenile defender unit.
These small steps are part of an effort to provide more comprehensive and effective services for those who face the challenges of living in poverty and have been involved with the criminal justice system.
Dr. Elana Delavaga is an assistant professor with the University of Memphis Department of Social Work. Her research focuses on poverty and how it intersects with oppression and exclusion. She believes social work can and should play a critical support role in a public defender system.
“We feel the poor very often do not get a fair hearing and end up disproportionately imprisoned simply because they do not have access, the resources that more affluent groups have in terms of defense,” says Elana Delavaga. “One of the things that happens is that public defenders are overworked, they have tremendously large caseloads, they do an incredibly hard job and they have very little support. Our role as social workers is to support public defenders by providing background information by talking to the client, by doing psycho-social assessment, by ensuring the rights of those most marginalized are protected. So we want to be a support to the people already doing a great job in defending the excluded, those who do not have the backing of money for their own defense.”
Offices like the Bronx Defenders in New York have led the way in providing comprehensive services to clients, making social workers an essential component of their work. The Bronx Defenders believe that social workers help clients “achieve better outcomes in and out of the courtroom.” These results are good not only for clients, but the entire community. Results we may see more of in Shelby County.
Memphis, TN, 2/20/2015 – The Shelby County Jericho Project has been chosen as one of eight programs across the country approaching criminal justice challenges in new and effective ways. The recipients of the 2015 “Innovations in Criminal Justice Award” were selected by the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA) in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and the Center for Court Innovation.
“I am delighted that we can bring together a multidisciplinary group of criminal justice leaders to discuss initiatives that are examples of a more efficient and effective justice system,” said BJA’s Director Denise O’Donnell. “The program highlights the most innovative criminal justice programs across the nation, but also provides summit participants with the requisite knowledge and skills necessary to implement or replicate these practices in their own jurisdictions.”
The Jericho Project was launched more than a decade ago by the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office to better serve people living with serious mental illness and substance use disorders who were cycling through the criminal justice system.
The main architect of the Jericho Project is Shelby County Chief Public Defender, Stephen Bush. He developed the initiative while an Assistant Public Defender, a position he held for almost 20 years before being appointed Shelby County’s 10th Public Defender in 2010.
“The Jericho Project has helped break down barriers to recovery for hundreds of people since it launched more than a decade ago,” said Bush. “We are honored that a program developed in Shelby County is being recognized as a national model. And particularly so, that this recognition comes from leading national prosecutors. Supporting people who live with addiction and mental illness as they transition from jail to our community is vital work, and we hope this award helps other communities develop better ways of doing it.”
Nearly 60% of those participating in Jericho have successfully completed their recovery plans and also avoided further contact with the criminal justice system. By building linkage plans to community treatment and services tailored to client needs, this comprehensive approach has cut in half the recidivism rate typically found among those with serious mental illness.
The Jericho Project will be recognized at the “Innovations in Criminal Justice Summit III” April 20-21, 2015 in Los Angeles.