Shelby County Public Defender on Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Tennessee

“Each morning, I slow down as I drive past the concrete blocks in downtown Memphis that once held up the Confederacy.

It has become a daily source of inspiration to reflect on the unrelenting courage, commitment and creativity that leaders in my community displayed to bring down monuments to oppression and inhumanity. Years of meetings, protests, threats, paperwork and political maneuvering culminated in the erasure of these public symbols of white supremacy.

As the Chief Public Defender for Shelby County, this gives me hope. It demonstrates that this community can make difficult change when there is a sustained will to confront injustice.

Razing racial disparities in our juvenile justice system will require the level of courage, commitment and creativity it took to bring down those statues — times 10. That sounds daunting, but Memphis is not alone in this fight. What is wrong here is wrong in communities across our state” — Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush, Commercial Appeal “Viewpoint”

This Tuesday, the Tennessee General Assembly convenes the 2018 legislative session. Over the next few months, we could see laws proposed that dramatically alter the way all children in Tennessee are treated, particularly youth  of color who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.  Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush was invited to contribute his perspective about a report recently issued by the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice. The recommendations in this report could be used to create a more fair juvenile justice system and curb the number of school children referred to law enforcement.

You can read his entire column in the Commercial Appeal here.


Ass’t Shelby County Public Defender Advocates for Human Rights Here and Abroad

“I went to law school to do international human rights work, but the more I started learning about the justice system in our country… I realized there is human rights work to do at home.”

Assistant Shelby County Public Defender Melody Dernocoeur presented last month at a conference held in one of the world’s most historic legal venues – the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany – site of the famed Nuremberg Trials.

“This place marks a tragedy, but also, it is a point of progress. You experience these overlapping feelings here. When you’re in that room presenting what is aspirational work, you feel part of a process that has come a long way, but still has a long way to go.”

While at Northwestern Law, Dernocoeur became part of a work group developing an international code for all defense counsel practicing before international tribunals and courts. Her group presented its work at the International Nuremberg Principles Academy for the Fifth International Meeting of the Defence.

Dernocoeur started at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office in November 2016 and recently transferred to the Juvenile Defender Unit. She came to Memphis specifically to advocate for the defense of children.

We are honored that passionate and talented lawyers from the Mid-South and across the country choose to serve the people of Memphis. #DefendGideon #Gaultat50


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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