Legendary Civil Rights Organization Looks to Public Defenders to Fight Mass Incarceration

Nearly fifty years after his assassination in this city, the organization founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reignited King’s “Poor People’s Campaign” in Memphis at their 59th annual convention.

One of the key initiatives will be raising funding, support and awareness on behalf of public defenders through a partnership with Gideon’s Promise, the Atlanta based training program dedicated to building the next generation of public defenders.

SCLC President/CEO Dr. Charles Steele, Jr. announced a formal partnership with Gideon’s Promise during the convention’s opening ceremony.

“Our struggle for civil and human rights is far from finished. Nowhere is this truer than in our criminal justice system. It is a system that is almost exclusively reserved for the poor and disproportionately for black and brown people,” said Dr. Steele.  “Public defenders serve as the advocates for these men, women, and children. If they do not have support, they cannot help our most vulnerable communities fight back against this unjust system.”

Gideon’s Promise founder, Jon Rapping, spoke at the convention and called the criminal justice system one of our country’s most vital pieces of unfinished civil rights work. He said that with more resources and support, public defenders can be on the front lines of this fight.

“Public defenders are almost completely overlooked in our national conversation about criminal justice reform. This omission is fatal to a comprehensive strategy to have equal justice,” said Rapping. “We are grateful to Dr. Steele for recognizing the critical role public defenders must play in this important civil rights struggle and for inviting us to partner with SCLC to transform criminal justice in America.”

Rapping said that Memphis is one of its largest partner cities. Nearly a third of the Shelby County Public Defender’s office has taken part in Gideon’s Promise training. Lawyers from our office attending the event were asked to stand and be recognized.

“These people work every day to honor this critically important civil rights work,” said Rapping.

In a joint press release, Gideon’s Promise and the SCLC outlined the goals of the partnership: To provide training and support for public defenders,  raise awareness of the critical role public defenders must play in a broader strategy to transform criminal justice in America, and build strong partnerships between public defenders and the communities they serve.

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Celebrate Public Defense!

Join our office and defenders across the country as we recognize the lawyers, investigators, social workers, mediation specialists, law clerks, paralegals and support staff who fight on behalf of their clients every day.

The Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender are powered by more than 80 lawyers and 40 support staff and managers. Sounds like a huge staff. Until you realize those attorneys represent 35 thousand people a year. Many of our lawyers have caseloads more than twice that recommended by the U.S. Justice Department. Try protecting someone’s constitutional rights when you have 900 cases.

Some of the best trained lawyers from some of the best law schools in the country work in our office. We either need more of them or if you ask us, we’d rather have a smaller, smarter and more humane criminal justice system – one that points people toward more productive lives instead of setting them up for a quick return to jail.

For nearly a century — the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office has provided zealous counsel to tens of thousands of people. We are proud of this tradition and are dedicated to building upon it. You can watch this video about the incredible story that sparked the founding of the 3rd oldest public defense system in the country.

During this Public Defense Week our office and defenders across the country in collaboration with the National Association for Public Defense​ are sharing stories and statistics to honor the anniversary of Gideon v Wainwright (1963) the landmark Supreme Court decision that established public defender offices across the country. Go to these hashtags on Facebook and Twitter #CelebratePublicDefense #DefendGideon #TippingtheScales

We need lawmakers, community leaders and all of our neighbors to support the work of our public defenders and staff. We need you to fight policies that decimate neighborhoods and put scores of people, disproportionately people of color, in cages. We need people like you to fight these policies that negatively affect their lives and those of their loved ones long after they’ve completed their sentences.

Here’s what you can do to support public defenders and their clients:

Follow the progress of this proposal from the Chief Justice of the TN Supreme Court to overhaul Tennessee’s bloated and outdate criminal sentencing laws.

Fight any efforts in the Tennessee legislature to cut public defense funding.Call your legislators and tell them you support State Representative Raumesh Akbari​’s bill to cut felony conviction expungement fees in half.

Support those who support the work of public defenders and their clients. Donate to Just CityNational Association of Public Defense and Gideon’s Promise.

Listen to the voices of public defenders and the challenges our clients face every day:

Why I Come to Work | High Ground News

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.