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/

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.

 

Public Defense Week: A tribute to Clarence Gideon

We owe our American ideal of public defense to an aging drifter and a brilliant lawyer from Memphis

This week, our office and defender systems across the country celebrated Public Defense Week in collaboration with the National Association for Public Defense. Each day this week, we focused on a vital issue our public defenders and clients face: excessive bail, fines & fees; abolishing the death penalty; racial injustice & implicit bias and juvenile justice. All of this leading up to today — the anniversary of the Gideon v Wainwright (1963) decision.
 
Beginning at age 16, Clarence Earl Gideon spent much of his life in and out of prison for thefts, burglaries and robberies. In fact, his first experience with incarceration came by way of his mother, who hauled him into a Hannibal, Missouri jail for running away from home. Throughout his 61 years, Gideon would serve time in Missouri, Kansas and Texas prisons. His final, and what would become, pivotal brush with the law was a 1961 arrest for allegedly breaking into the vending machines in a Panama City, Florida, pool hall.
 
Gideon claimed innocence and asked for a court-appointed attorney. The judge denied his request, citing state law, which only allowed for court-appointed counsel in capital cases. So Gideon, a high school dropout, was left to defend himself. Not surprisingly, he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. Determined, Gideon filed a habeus corpus petition with the Florida Supreme Court claiming the lack of a court advocate was unconstitutional. The Florida court denied his petition, but the U.S. Supreme Court eventually reviewed it.
 
Justice Abe Fortas

In 1963, Memphian Abe Fortas and a team of highly respected lawyers argued Clarence Gideon’s case, and the court issued a unanimous decision finding that his conviction was unconstitutional. The Court held that the Sixth Amendment provides the right to appointed counsel in state felony cases. The Court further held that providing counsel for indigent defendants is an essential element of a “fair trial” and that because of the Fourteenth Amendment, the states are responsible for meeting this mandate.

Clarence Gideon was eventually given appointed counsel on the original charges and was acquitted.
 
March 18th, 2017 marks the 54th Anniversary of Gideon vs Wainwright (1963).
 
But the legacy of Gideon stands on uneven ground in Shelby County and throughout this country. The Shelby County Public Defender system and many across the U.S. are underfunded and overflowing with poor clients. It is a scenario too often thrust upon the backs of the poor and uneducated – the Clarence Earl Gideons of today.
 
You may never need the help of a public defender, but the safety of our community and, certainly, the health of our democracy, depends on everyone, regardless of income, receiving a fair shake in the courtroom.
 
Read more about the Gideon case and its ties to Memphis here:
 
 
 
You can see how public defenders across the country celebrated public defense and shined a light on issues facing defenders and their clients by looking at these hashtags on Facebook and Twitter #DefendGideon #TippingtheScales #CelebratePublicDefense
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