JustCity Roundtable: Public Defenders as Reformers in the Wake of Ferguson

Less than a week after the recent unrest began in Ferguson, Missouri, a determined group of young public defenders released a scathing white paper that exposed the widespread unfairness and oppressive nature of the municipal courts in St. Louis County. In the days since, much has been made of a system that disproportionately burdens poor people of color with fines, costs and fees and has likely contributed to continuing protests in the St. Louis area.

Arch City Defenders Flyer #ferguson

Join us after work in Memphis’ first maker space at Forge Memphis as we interview Thomas Harvey about his work on this issue and some of the reforms that are underway.

We only have 50 seats available — so RSVP with this Eventbrite!

The Arch City Defenders opened for business five years ago when each of its three founding attorneys still had day jobs. Their mission was to serve the homeless community in St. Louis, many of whom were struggling under unrealistic financial burdens imposed by the now-infamous municipal court systems of St. Louis County. This unique, non-profit law firm has grown into several employees and now occupies its founders full-time in a client-centered practice funded by contracts with local governments, grants and donations. They are a 501(c)(3) organization.

When ACD released the white paper in August, they found themselves in the national spotlight. The paper details the gross inequities of the more than 80 municipal court systems in St. Louis County that collect fines and fees from the area’s poorest residents. Some of these municipalities depend on this revenue to fund as much as half of their operations including police departments.  As a result of this eye-opening research and years of work in these courts, the attorneys of the Arch City Defenders have been featured by Newsweek, NBC, NPR, MSNBC, Huffington Post and the paper has led to reforms within some of the municipal governments, including Ferguson.

This JustCity Roundtable is hosted by the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office with generous support from Forge Memphis and the Assisi Foundation. The Roundtable is an occasional gathering of community leaders interested in leveraging the best ideas in criminal justice to improve our city.

Read more stories of justice on JustCity.org and follow us on Facebook and Twitter @DefendShelbyCo

To learn more about the Arch City Defenders, click this link.  To read the white paper, click here. To find out how the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office has worked to combat similar issues in Memphis, read this JustCity.org blog post about the innovative Street Court program.

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Nationally Renowned Artist Brings Exhibit Featuring Incarcerated Children to Memphis

When juveniles are involved in violent acts — our tendency is to react in fear — and call for swift, harsh punishment. But according to our juvenile justice laws, we are charged with working to rehabilitate youth.

Developments in brain science in the last 30 years reinforce the mission of rehabilitation — that the minds of young people are malleable and primed for continued development and change. Yet, with this mission and what we know, the U.S. still leads the world in incarcerating children.

This weekend, artist Richard Ross brings his photography to Memphis to show what juvenile justice looks like in this country — and his message is stark and unblinking.

Some may be less inclined to worry about inhumane detention conditions when young people are accused of unthinkable acts of violence, but a recent study found that 75% of young people held in detention in the U.S. are kept in these often poor and sometimes abusive conditions … for non-violent offenses.

Richard Ross

This Friday, September 19th, Richard Ross will give a lecture about his work at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis.  His work will be displayed in Memphis through November.  Also on exhibit will be the work of local artist, Penny Dodd, who has interviewed more than 800 Memphis teens — as they give us insight into their young, complicated lives.

From the "Juvenile-in-Justice" exhibit by Richard Ross
From the “Juvenile-in-Justice” exhibit by Richard Ross

Friday, September 19th

5-7pm Opening reception @ the University of Memphis College of Fine Arts

Performance during reception by the latest Music Production workshop of storybooth

and also by the Visible Community Music School

7pm  Richard Ross Lecture

Saturday, September 20th

10am – Noon  Morning Coffee with the artists

Exhibit will remain open until November 26th, 2014.

Read this article by Richard Ross on the popular political website, The Hill.

Memphis Teens Spend Summer Steeped in Public Defense, Other Areas of the Law

The Memphis Bar Association Internship Program is in its 8th year providing local high school students with a taste of what it means to be a lawyer.
MBA interns Nicole Weir (left) and Tashara Brown with the Shelby County Public Defender's Office
MBA interns Nicole Weir (left) and Tashara Brown with the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office

Nicole Weir says she’s wanted to be an attorney since she was 9-years old. So when she heard about an opportunity to intern with legal professionals this summer, she jumped at the chance. Weir was assigned to the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.

She’s doesn’t envision herself practicing criminal defense, but says her time spent with lawyers and law school interns has been invaluable.

“It has shaped my career plans by ensuring that law is what I want to study,” says Weir.

This sharpened focus on career and professionalism is the most sought after outcome for the Memphis Bar Association.  It begins even before students are accepted —  applications must be submitted and statements of interest written. Then, the tough part begins.

Students must go in groups of 20 before a panel of attorneys for interviews.  Applicants are judged on their oral presentation, interest in law and extracurricular activities.  If accepted, students agree to dress professionally and work approximately 60 hours during the month-long program. Upon successful completion of the program, the students are awarded a $500 stipend.

MBA Executive Director Anne Fritz says developing professionalism is at the core of the program.

“While we ask that the kids show some interest in the law, we know that not all will want to grow up and be a lawyer” says Fritz, “But if you want to grow up to be a professional anything, you have to be willing to do these things.”

The program is an initiative of the MBA’s diversity committee. It is designed to attract minority students. The big picture is to bring more diversity to the professional legal community. This year, 68 students from public and private schools in Shelby County were placed in public agencies, corporate legal departments and private law firms across Memphis.

MBA Interns learning about professionalism and social media.
MBA Interns learning about professionalism and social media.

Power Center Academy High School rising senior, Tashara Brown, spent her summer at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.  Her interest — criminal law.

“All of the lawyers I have met are passionate about their job, and I admire their dedication,” says Brown. “Before I interned at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, I only knew what other people had told me. I thought the Defender’s office was not the place to be if someone wanted to learn about being a real lawyer. This internship has changed my entire perspective on the Defender’s office … in a much more positive way.”

If you’d like to learn more about the MBA Internship Program, you can watch a video about it here.