National Advocate for Community-Oriented Defense Sees Public Defense as Path to Better Memphis

“Think of your most embarrassing moment as an adult. (PAUSE) Now, share it with the person sitting next to you.”  – Thomas Giovanni

Brennan Center client empathy workshop
Brennan Center client empathy workshop

Much to their relief, no one had to divulge that information in this workshop for the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender.  But Thomas Giovanni of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School used this scenario so lawyers could walk in their clients’ shoes.  Just for a few moments.

“Imagine how difficult this is for your client,” said Giovanni, “to talk to someone he doesn’t know about one of the worst days of his life.”

Cultivating empathy with clients is a critical skill for public defenders — one that Giovanni believes can build trust between lawyer and client. It’s this trust that can help defenders gain important insight into circumstances of the case and the person’s history.  This approach is at the heart of a client-centered practice in which client and attorney work together to achieve the best possible outcome, one that can hopefully keep the client from coming back.

Thomas Giovanni of the Brennan Center presenting to the Law Offices of Shelby County Public Defender
Thomas Giovanni of the Brennan Center presenting to the Law Offices of Shelby County Public Defender

Giovanni is the director of the Brennan Center’s Community-Oriented Defender Network, a coalition of 60 defender offices across the country.  Shelby County was Giovanni’s first stop in a series of network office visits.

While in Memphis, Giovanni also met with a small group of local reform-minded community leaders for the first JustCity Roundtable.  The discussion focused on how public defense can be leveraged for a better community.

JustCity Roundtable: Leveraging Public Defense for a Better Memphis
JustCity Roundtable: Leveraging Public Defense for a Better Memphis

Community-oriented defense seeks to engage public defenders with community-based organizations. When a defender office has healthy community relationships, it can help reduce the number of people, who come in contact with the criminal justice system. People can live more productive lives and communities can save on incarceration, court and enforcement costs.

You can read more about community-oriented defense and see what other public defense systems are doing in this publication by the Brennan Center.  The Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender are featured on page 11 of this report.

Giovanni also brought a special gift to to our office — one that reminds us of the heroic role public defenders once played in American culture.  See what that is and read about our office in this installation of the new Commercial Appeal series, Safe in Memphis.  Follow the series on Facebook and the hashtag #safeinmemphis on Twitter.

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