‘Gideon’s Promise’ Movement Growing in Memphis

Clarence Earl Gideon
Clarence Earl Gideon

“I became a public defender because I felt it was a moral imperative and because the people who otherwise would not be able to afford my services … are the ones who need it the most.”   Alex Lynch, Shelby County Assistant Public Defender

It was 51 years ago this week that a drifter — remarkable only for his decades long record of mostly petty crimes — sparked a transformation of our criminal justice system.

From his Florida prison cell, Clarence Gideon drafted a handwritten petition claiming that the court’s refusal to assign him counsel, because he was too poor to afford his own, was unconstitutional. His case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court and on March 18th, 1963, the court agreed with him.  The Gideon v Wainwright decision established the right of counsel to anyone facing deprivation of liberty, regardless of ability to pay.

Shelby County had already created a public defense system, some forty years earlier, in 1917 — making it the third oldest public defender office in the country. But the Gideon decision is credited with the creation of public defense systems in most other parts of the country, where before, there had been none.

In the half-decade since Gideon, however, the criminal justice system has hardly developed into one that provides all people a fair shake. While Memphis may have been an early adopter of publicly-funded defense for the poor, its role as a leader has been undermined by crushing caseloads that have long outpaced increases in funding. Public defender workload in Shelby County has more than doubled in the last twenty years while staffing has only grown by 9% … a local example of what U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently called a national “crisis” in public defense.

The Shelby County Public Defender's 'Gideon's Promise' classes of 2012 & 2013.
The Shelby County Public Defender’s ‘Gideon’s Promise’ classes of 2012 & 2013.

In counties and states across the country, public defenders struggle to realize the promise of Gideon. That’s why in 2007, the Southern Public Defender’s Training Center was established — to provide support and training for young public defenders.

Too often, these lawyers have little or no time to see their clients outside the courtroom, engage in investigation, or even adequately prepare their cases.  The result – poor people can receive inadequate defense and good lawyers are left frustrated by the injustice.  The program was designed to help lawyers navigate this broken system and serve as change agents.

In 2013, the program rebranded as Gideon’s Promise and is now a cadre of more than 200 young public defenders working in systems throughout the South.

Today, our office has ten of its most promising, young lawyers involved in ongoing and intensive training through Gideon’s Promise.

Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush plans to send more from his office every year in an effort to provide high quality training and support for young lawyers and to give these public defenders the tools to push change in a broken system.

“By engaging with these young, energetic lawyers, we are adding to a legacy of aggressive and zealous advocacy,” says Bush. “They bring fresh ideas and tireless client-centered work and are trained by some of the best public defenders in the country.”

Fifty-one years later, the promise of the Gideon decision has yet to be realized.  But there is the hope that one day, it will.  And a great deal of that hope rests with this next generation of attorneys.

Watch this interview with Gideon’s Promise participant and Shelby County Assistant Public Defender, Katherine Oberembt, about the problems she sees everyday in our criminal justice system:

Note: Later this spring, you can learn more about Gideon’s Promise and meet its founder, Jon Rapping, when the organization visits Memphis.  Our office will also hold a screening of a film involving attorneys from the program — the award-winning documentary, Gideon’s Army.  The event is planned for May. More details will be shared here on JustCity.org

Read More about Gideon’s Promise:

Two of Nation’s Top Law School Grads Join Shelby County Public Defenders

National Leader in Indigent Defense Reform in Memphis to Train Shelby County Public Defenders

Can an Army of Young Attorneys Revolutionize Public Defense? Watch the Film Premiere on HBO