Memphis Filmmakers Want More Eyes on the Juvenile Justice System

Pair gather stories from across the country to create a feature film.

Sarah Fleming and Joann Self-Selvidge filming for a story about juvenile defenders

When the U.S. Department of Justice released a stinging investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court in April of 2012, juvenile justice advocates around the nation took notice. The charges were damning — systematic violation of the due process rights of children and and failure to offer equal protection to African American children.

Independent filmmakers Joann Self Selvidge and Sarah Fleming took notice, too.  During the course of the last few years, the pair have met with children, family members and advocates involved with the juvenile justice system to record their stories. Self Selvidge and Fleming have also partnered with the National Juvenile Defenders Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center to broaden the scope of their work beyond Memphis.

“Through eliciting personal narratives, the filmmakers also hope to illustrate the school to prison pipeline, which criminalizes bad behavior at school and disproportionately affects black students, a group that is nearly 3.5 times more likely to be arrested at school than their white peers, according to the U.S. Department of Education.” – High Ground News

 

Read the full story of their journey to raise awareness about the juvenile justice system in the online publication, High Ground News: 

“Memphis Filmmakers Shine a Light on the Juvenile Justice System”

 

Watch this story about one of our own Assistant Shelby County Public Defender’s working in the Juvenile Defender Unit:

 

 

Public Defenders Fight Injustices of Juvenile Justice System

Each day this week, defenders across the country honor Public Defense Week by looking at an issue that affects our clients. Today, it’s about our youngest clients.

In offices across the country, public defenders advocate for children in contact with the juvenile justice system. But too often, children go without adequate representation or any representation.
 
In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967), was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that ensured the right to a lawyer for children accused of crimes in juvenile court. The ruling also provided other due process rights, including the right to be notified of the charges, the right to cross-examine witnesses, and the right to not have to make a statement against oneself. Nearly 50 years ago with Gault, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that children need representation throughout the entirety of their cases. But today, few children receive meaningful access to a qualified juvenile defense attorney when in juvenile court.
 
Nationally, many juveniles accused of crimes never see a lawyer or receive ineffective legal advice. If they do get an attorney, it is usually the least experienced or the most burned out. Only 42 percent of youth in custody reported having a lawyer.
 
In Memphis, children accused of crimes are increasingly gaining access to quality defense through the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender. Lawyers in our Juvenile Defense Unit are trained in the highly-specialized area of juvenile defense. Social workers, investigators and legal support staff work on teams with lawyers to deliver children and their families a defense guided by the expressed interest of the child, plus guidance and support through the entire legal process.
 
Our Juvenile Defense Unit was created in 2013, after the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division released a stinging report from a five year investigation that found the Shelby County Juvenile Court was systematically violating the due process rights of children and failing to provide equal protection for black children in the system.
 
The development of a Juvenile Defense Unit was a critical part of the Memorandum of Understanding the DOJ entered into with Shelby County and Juvenile Court in 2013. The Court is still working toward complete compliance and its progress or lack of is tracked by two DOJ monitors.
 
Juvenile justice advocates across the country are watching the development of this agreement, as it marks the first time the DOJ has moved against a juvenile court system.
 
Every day, our Shelby County Public Defenders and legal support staff fight the grave inadequacies still present in our juvenile courts, local law enforcement and school disciplinary policies. But they can’t do it alone. Support public defense and reform of the criminal justice of system at the local, state and federal level.
This week, help us as we join defenders across the country, in collaboration with National Association for Public Defense to raise awareness as we celebrate Public Defense Week March 13-18. Follow the hashtags #DefendGideon #TippingtheScales #CelebratePublicDefense on Facebook and Twitter and share.
 
Each day, we’ll focus on a vital issue facing public defenders and staff, but most importantly, our clients. The week will culminate on Saturday, March 18th as we celebrate the anniversary of Gideon v Wainwright (1963) the Supreme Court decision that established public defense systems across the country.
And all this year – we’ll be celebrating the 100th year of public defense in Shelby County. Watch this video to see the amazing story of how the case of a black man, wrongly accused of killing a white woman, sparked the creation of the 3rd old public defense system in the country.
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Read these local stories about juvenile justice in Memphis:
 
 
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Shelby County Public Defender Chairs ACE Awareness Board

ACE Awareness Foundation an effort to help parents, caregivers limit or prevent a child’s chronic exposure to trauma

Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush has been named the new chair of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Awareness Foundation board.

“As the public defender, I see daily the consequences of adverse childhood experiences in the lives of the thousands of children bumping up against juvenile court,” said Stephen Bush, Shelby County Public Defender.

 

“In fact, 93% of youth in detention have survived repeated trauma. This strong correlation between trauma and contact with juvenile court is undeniable and something that we, as parents and as community, cannot afford to ignore.”

Bush has served on the ACEs Task Force since it was founded in 2014. The task force launched the ACE Awareness Foundation. Since then, the foundation has created two Universal Parenting Places (UPPs) which provide any parent who walks through their doors with counseling and information involving family-related issues or concerns. In July, ACEs also opened the “Warm Line” — a free, live telephone line that connects parents with trained professionals who provide parenting guidance and support.

“We’ve known for many years about the link between early childhood traumas and future justice system involvement,” said Bush. “What is becoming increasingly clear, though, is that toxic stress experienced during childhood is crippling to a child in ways far beyond problems at school or an encounter with the justice system.”

For his first public outreach as ACE Awareness Foundation board chair, Bush appeared on the Commercial Appeal’s ‘Talk, Memphis’ podcast hosted by journalist David Waters.

“It’s about fundamental fairness. Which is really what our work at the public defender’s office is about. We are appointed to represent individuals that can’t afford counsel, because I believe everyone deserves a fair shake. The Constitution requires it,” said Bush on the podcast. “But if you take that same idea, certainly every kid born in this community should have a fair shake and a healthy life – to live a healthy and whole life.”

“I can tell you, if we get this right about reducing and preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences, we can begin to talk about reducing the size of our criminal justice system, right-sizing our juvenile justice system and the savings that could come from that could very well fund anything we need to do in public education.” 

You can listen to the entire podcast here

Learn more about the work the ACE Awareness Foundation is doing to increase knowledge among policy makers, state and local leaders and citizens about the effects and causes of toxic stress in this piece that aired in April of 2016 on PBS Newshour.  You can watch the entire segment here.

Check out the ACE Awareness Foundation website and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.