Task Force Urges Tennessee to Reform Public Defense

“If you are poor, your lawyer is often overworked and grossly underfunded” via The Commercial Appeal
Shelby County Assistant Public Defenders Melody Dernocoeur, Phil Harvey featured in the Commercial Appeal.

This week, a task force appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court to examine indigent defense, specifically how the defense of poor people is funded, released its findings. The task force has met and conducted listening tours for the past 16 months.

Tennessee has a hybrid system in which Public Defender office’s handle the vast majority of counsel for the poor. Private attorneys are appointed to cases these offices cannot take, such as a case with co-defendants and one person is represented by the public defender.

“Based on the task force report, I’m hopeful Tennessee will finally establish reasonable workload controls that ensure we can meet the minimum ethical obligations that all lawyers owe their clients.”  –  Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush

 

Among the top recommendations from the task force via The Commercial Appeal:

  • Raise the rate of private attorneys appointed to represent the poor from $40-50/hour to $75-125/hour.  Currently, Tennessee’s compensation rate is among the lowest in the country.
  • Eliminate the caps on how much time can be spent on an appointed case.
  • Develop a training and certification process for new lawyers, to ensure standardization of skills
  • Creation of a commission to oversee all appointed counsel, including the defense of children.

We look forward to seeing the legislation that will come from this report and are hopeful it will lead to every Tennessean, regardless of income, receiving a zealous defense in our criminal justice system.

You can read the entire article in this story via The Commercial Appeal

You can also read the entire report here.

 

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.

 

Public Defender Helps Reframe Memphis History

From riot to massacre: Shelby County assistant public defender leads effort to give truth to tribute

Phyllis and memorial.
Shelby Co. Ass’t Public Defender Phyllis Aluko at unveiling of the Memphis Massacre marker.

When Phyllis Aluko read Professor Stephen Ash’s latest book, “A Massacre in Memphis: The race riot that shook the nation one year after the civil war” she wondered why she hadn’t heard about it before.

Then, she wondered about other things — such as why it was not acknowledged with a historical marker, like so many other critical moments in Memphis’ past.

She also wondered why it was called a “race riot”  — a term used historically and still today as code for protests started by African Americans that erupt in violence.

What happened during that horrific three day period in 1866 was the murder of 46 black men, women and children, the beating or rape of many others and the burning of black churches, schools and homes — an unconscionable 36-hour killing spree carried out by white mobs.

Aluko, a supervising attorney and member of the appellate team with the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender, decided to do something — about all of it.  As a board member of the Memphis NAACP, she worked tirelessly with other community organizations and the National Park Service to establish a historical marker with language that reflected the truth of that fateful day.

A dedication ceremony was held at the National Civil Rights Museum and the marker was unveiled at the Army-Navy Park at Second Ave. and Patterson St. near the museum.

You can read more about the marker and the Memphis Massacre here:

Do the Words ‘Race Riot’ Belong on a Historic Marker in Memphis? via NPR

Marker Finally Honors Truth, Victims of Memphis Massacre via The Commercial Appeal

Historian: It Was Both a ‘Riot’ and a ‘Massacre’ via The Commercial Appeal