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  Tennessee joins a number of states re-examining outdated sentencing laws, but today’s story in the Commercial Appeal reveals that some are concerned about which groups are not adequately represented in this reform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.


Unlikely Political Alliance Could Change Sentencing Laws

“While a range of judges, prosecutors and public defenders have for years raised concerns about disparities in punishment, it is this alliance that may make politically possible the most significant liberalization of sentencing laws since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on drugs.” — Matt Apuzo, The New York Times

Screenshot 2014-03-04 11.27.57That’s how the New York Times characterized the blossoming support for sentencing reform among U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Libertarian-minded Republicans, like Rand Paul. While General Holder is focusing on sentencing reform as a civil rights issue (because of its disproportionate impact on minorities), Sen. Paul argues that long sentences are a fiscal issue — ineffective at fighting crime and expensive to taxpayers.

“This is the definition of how you get bipartisan agreement,” Mr. Paul said in an interview. “It’s not splitting the difference. It’s finding areas of common interest.”

You can read the entire NYT’s article here: Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws

The Punishment Imperative

One of the country’s leading criminologists believes more political partnerships like this are imminent, as he argues the end of mass incarceration is upon us.  In his newest book, “The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America,” Todd Clear, the Dean of Rutgers University-Newark School of Criminal Justice, maintains that this sea change has been sparked by the fact that local municipalities and states have been burdened with the rising cost of maintaining and building expensive correctional facilities.  Additionally, he cites that the “tough punishment” solution that caused our country’s prison population to explode was based on “almost no hard evidence” that it actually lowered crime.

Clear points to the political and social unrest of the 1960’s and Richard Nixon’s “law and order” presidential campaign as moments that defined the way we have come to view crime and punishment in the U.S. In fact, Clear claims that through the decades, tough sentencing and mass incarceration became “the solution” for both political parties and the “tough on crime” response has dominated our culture … until now.

“… something else that convinces me is that the public conversation is no longer about getting tough on this or that. You don’t see politicians proposing new expansions of their prison systems. Mayors aren’t running on get-tough policies. Other claims are now being made on federal dollars. The argument that was previously being made was sort of a political-cultural argument. And you don’t hear that anymore.”

You can read a Q & A with Clear here: Making Punishment Fit the Crime