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.
 White space
Read these local stories about juvenile justice in Memphis:
white space
 Whate space 
Whatie space
White space

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.


Former U.S. Attorney Brings Career Full Circle with Shelby County Public Defender’s Office

Veronica Coleman-Davis retires from Juvenile Defender Unit

Veronica Coleman-Davis on Open Society Institute panel.
Veronica Coleman-Davis on Open Society Institute panel.

It was 1975 when she first came to the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, Veronica Coleman-Davis had just graduated from the Memphis State University School of Law (now the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law). After a short stint as a part-time attorney, Coleman-Davis was hired full-time, making her the first female assistant public defender in Shelby County. This month, the former U.S. Attorney will bring to a close four decades of distinguished service right back where she started — at the public defender’s office, but this time, in juvenile defense.

“It was humbling that Veronica Coleman-Davis, a former U.S. Attorney and pioneering female attorney in Memphis and across the state, chose to come back to public defense,” said Chief Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush. “Not only did she want to come back to our office, she wanted the challenge of advocating for children caught in the criminal justice system. It was an honor that such a notable figure in our legal community lent her wisdom and service to the formation of the Juvenile Defender Unit.”

It should come as no surprise that Coleman-Davis chose to take part in such a difficult endeavor. After all, she’s spent a lifetime breaking new ground in Tennessee.  After becoming the first female assistant public defender in Shelby County, Coleman-Davis went on to become a founding partner of the first all-female law firm in Tennessee in 1977. Several years later, she was hired as the first black female Assistant District Attorney for Shelby County. She would also be appointed the first black female Juvenile Court referee in Tennessee.

But it was in 1993 that Coleman-Davis would make national history — that’s when she was sworn in as the first black and first female U.S. Attorney in Tennessee, only the third black female U.S. Attorney in the country.  Coleman also founded the National Institute for Law & Equity with 12 fellow African-American U.S. Attorneys to focus on fair and equal treatment for all people in the criminal justice system and then testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee about sentencing disparities in crack cocaine cases.

Juvenile Defender Unit party for Coleman-Davis retirement

In 2014, Coleman-Davis chose to return to the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. This time, she joined an office with far more female colleagues – in fact, nearly 40% of the lawyers in the office are women. The challenge that drew her back to the office more than 30 years later was juvenile justice. Coleman-Davis wanted to be part of the new Juvenile Defender Unit, established in an agreement with the Department of Justice to help remedy due process and equal protection violations in the Shelby County Juvenile Court.

“I was honored to be able to serve on the first Juvenile Court Shelby County Public Defender team,” said Coleman-Davis. “It has been one of the highlights of my years of practice to work with talented and caring attorneys and staff.  I look forward to the time when the SCPD gets national recognition for the impact they are making on behalf of youth who come into the juvenile justice system.”

Coleman-Davis continues to serve on the board of Mothers of the NILE, an organization dedicated to reducing the number of children entering Shelby County’s juvenile justice system. She is past president of this non-profit, a spin-off program of the National Institute for Institute & Equity that was founded by Coleman-Davis.  She also chairs the liturgy committee for Holy Names of Jesus and Mary Catholic Church.