Public Defenders Join to Focus on Implicit Bias and Racial Injustice

Each day this week, defenders across the country honor Public Defense Week by looking at an issue that affects our clients.

Public Defenders are on the front lines of today’s greatest civil rights struggles. Race permeates every aspect of our criminal justice system. Even computer algorithms used in risk assessments are known to be programmed with racial biases. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, police are three times as likely to search the cars of stopped black drivers than stopped white drivers. Black drivers are also more likely to be pulled over and less likely to receive a reason for being stopped.
 
People of color are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated: one out of every twenty-nine black adult women and men are currently incarcerated compared with only one out of every 194 whites men and women. When incarcerated, people of color continue to be discriminated against. In fact, an investigation into New York State Prisons showed that black inmates were punished at significantly higher rates than white inmates, and are sent to solitary confinement more often and for longer
 
Most U.S. states restrict the voting rights of citizens convicted of crimes. Since black Americans are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, voter disenfranchisement has a disproportionate effect on the black population.
 
Every day, public defenders work to mitigate racial inequity in the system. 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. 
 
RESOURCES ABOUT IMPLICIT BIAS/RACIAL INEQUITY IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM:
 
 
The Impact of Implicit Racial Bias on the Exercise of Prosecutorial Discretion | Seattle University Law Review  
 Making space here. 

TN Justice Reform Task Force Criticized for Lack of Defense Attorneys, Minorities

Screenshot 2014-08-27 12.53.21In today’s Commercial Appeal: A story examining the makeup of a new Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism.

A media release from the State of Tennessee acknowledges that the state’s sentencing structure has not been changed in more than two decades.  Tennessee joins a number of states re-examining outdated sentencing laws, but today’s story in the Commercial Appeal reveals that some are concerned about which groups are not adequately represented in this reform effort.

The story, by reporter Samantha Bryson, looks at both the racial disparity on the task force and the lack of perspective from an important justice reform voice — defense attorneys.

Only one person on the committee, Cannon County Public Defender Gerald Melton, currently works at the defense side of the table. Police chiefs, judges, sheriffs and district attorneys account for 18 of its members, who serve alongside other lawmakers and a victim’s rights advocate. There appear to be no ex-offenders or advocacy groups for ex-offenders represented. The group is also about 90 percent white and overwhelmingly Republican, in a state where 44 percent of its 30,349 inmates are black.” –  ‘Haslam’s Sentencing Reforms Committee is Short on Defense Attorneys,” The Commercial Appeal.

You can read the complete article here. (Paywall)
Click here to read an editorial by prominent Memphis defense attorney, Michael Working.
You can also click here to see the list of those serving on the task force.

 

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.