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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Memphis Filmmakers Want More Eyes on the Juvenile Justice System

Pair gather stories from across the country to create a feature film.

Sarah Fleming and Joann Self-Selvidge filming for a story about juvenile defenders

When the U.S. Department of Justice released a stinging investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court in April of 2012, juvenile justice advocates around the nation took notice. The charges were damning — systematic violation of the due process rights of children and and failure to offer equal protection to African American children.

Independent filmmakers Joann Self Selvidge and Sarah Fleming took notice, too.  During the course of the last few years, the pair have met with children, family members and advocates involved with the juvenile justice system to record their stories. Self Selvidge and Fleming have also partnered with the National Juvenile Defenders Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center to broaden the scope of their work beyond Memphis.

“Through eliciting personal narratives, the filmmakers also hope to illustrate the school to prison pipeline, which criminalizes bad behavior at school and disproportionately affects black students, a group that is nearly 3.5 times more likely to be arrested at school than their white peers, according to the U.S. Department of Education.” – High Ground News

 

Read the full story of their journey to raise awareness about the juvenile justice system in the online publication, High Ground News: 

“Memphis Filmmakers Shine a Light on the Juvenile Justice System”

 

Watch this story about one of our own Assistant Shelby County Public Defender’s working in the Juvenile Defender Unit:

 

 

Public Defenders Walk (Bus) in Clients’ Shoes

Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Kelly Pretzer wanted to know what it’s like for her clients in the Mental Health Specialty Court to get to mandated treatments, especially for the vast majority of indigent clients who do not have access to their own transportation. So, Kelly organized a trip through Memphis on Memphis Area Transit Authority to sites where clients are mandated treatment through Shelby County Drug, Mental Health and Veterans Courts. Twelve lawyers with bus passes went to centers for mental health treatment and drug testing, a residential recovery facility, the Veterans Administration Hospital and the Memphis Mental Health Institute.

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Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Kelly Pretzer wanted to know what it’s like for her clients in the Mental Health Specialty Court to get to mandated treatments, especially for the vast majority of indigent clients who do not have access to their own transportation. So, Kelly organized a trip through Memphis on Memphis Area Transit Authority to sites where clients are mandated treatment through Shelby County Drug, Mental Health and Veterans Courts. Twelve lawyers with bus passes went to centers for mental health treatment and drug testing, a residential recovery facility, the Veterans Administration Hospital and the Memphis Mental Health Institute.

The lawyers were divided into groups to simulate what a client from each treatment court might experience on a day when making three appointments. Navigating the bus system was challenging, even with the printed out maps and careful planning by Kelly and her colleague Chelsea Kapes. Groups were often late for appointments (one group was even an hour late!). The lawyers spent far less time riding on the hot buses, than they did walking in between spots, walking from the bus stop to the sites and waiting at bus shelters. Plus there was a great deal of uncertainty about whether we were at the right stop — most stops were not numbered and provided no maps.

The bright spots of the day were at the treatment facilities– such as the Judicare Inpatient Drug Recovery Center, where we met Mimi, the friendly German Shepard who lives there.

Stats for the average route to three locations: 7 buses, 1.5 miles of walking and an hour of waiting.

The hope is that this experience helps our lawyers advocate better for clients receiving treatments — so that they know more about where facilities are located, what’s offered and how long it takes to get to various appointments.

A columnist with the Commercial Appeal rode along with us:  Attorneys Ride Bus in Clients’ Shoes.

You can learn more about the challenges faced by poor people who must rely on public transportation in this article by The Atlantichttps://www.theatlantic.com/…/stranded-how-americas…/393419/

And this piece recently published in the The Commercial Appeal about the perils of being without a car in Memphis: http://www.commercialappeal.com/…/weathersbee-pe…/100812326/