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.

 

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

Op-Ed: Repeal of Smart Legislation Would Cost Shelby County

This article was originally published in the Commercial Appeal on February 26, 2015.  Republished with permission from the Commercial Appeal. 

Stephen Bush, Shelby County Public Defender
Shelby County Public Defender

Memphis lawyer Bill Haltom recently published “The Other Fellow Might Be Right,” a delightful account of Senator Howard Baker that celebrates the Tennessee lawyer’s civility and commitment to building systems of governance that stand the test of time and serve our communities well.

Too often in our public policy discourse we fail to recognize the merits of healthy debate, the potential of compromise and the benefits of incorporating different opinions. Sen. Baker appreciated each of these things and understood that good government requires civility, and it values contributions from all sides. In that spirit, I encourage our state lawmakers to move with careful deliberation before repealing a law that has safeguarded the integrity of our local justice system for more than two decades.

House Bill 241, sponsored by Rep. Curry Todd, would eliminate the requirement that Shelby County increase funding to the public defender at 75% of increases for the prosecution.

I understand why our District Attorney General would want the requirement repealed.  Finding revenue sources for the work of both our staffs is an ongoing challenge and is increasingly frustrating as both sides strive to ensure the integrity of the criminal justice system for all citizens of Shelby County.

Dist. Atty. Gen. Weirich has a point. There are deep, systemic problems with the way our criminal justice system is funded. Frankly, I wish our state lawmakers were debating bold criminal justice reforms like those enacted in so many Southern states; the resulting legislation has reduced demand on overwhelmed and costly criminal justice systems. Tennessee lawmakers should be looking to our neighbors in Kentucky and Georgia and even to Texas and Florida. These states have enacted cost-saving criminal justice reform measures that have reduced the size of jail and prison populations, while they continue to experience falling crime rates, just like the rest of the country.

Instead, we are left with a proposal to erase a sensible law that has worked for 23 years to maintain some balance between public defenders and prosecutors and control criminal justice costs.

The real problem, however, is that spending on criminal justice systems has been gradually shifted from the state to local taxpayers. This has never been more evident than with prosecution and defender services in Shelby County. The General Assembly should fix this by providing adequate resources to both sides. Repealing the 75% Rule will only make things worse.  There are consequences to consider before proceeding with such a one-dimensional response.

It is a near certainty that passage of this bill will lead to significant new local funding for the prosecution. Additional prosecution resources will inevitably lead to increased demand on our court systems and local jails. Public defenders play a critical role in meeting those demands.

To grow one side of this equation while simultaneously shrinking the other is a recipe for rapidly escalating costs elsewhere in Shelby County. Jail costs will go up; courts will slow down.  And the quality of our justice system will suffer.

I believe Senator Baker would have insisted that the quality of our justice system is paramount – that there must be balance. There is a growing mandate to confront what even the United States Department of Justice acknowledges is a national crisis in public defense, and advocates as diverse as Koch Industries and the MacArthur Foundation agree that well-resourced and properly functioning systems for public defense are essential.

Rather than simply deciding whether House Bill 241 should be passed, I encourage Tennessee lawmakers to further study these funding disparities and determine the real costs of dismantling a long-standing, smartly designed rule that preserves some balance and fiscal restraint. I oppose passage of HB241 as a narrow solution to a broad problem, but I am not opposed to careful consideration of what it might take to build a better, more cost-effective criminal justice system.

Stephen Bush is the Shelby County Public Defender.