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

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” 

– Margaret Mead

When American anthropologist Margaret Mead coined this phrase in the 1960s, she was most certainly referring to the reformers at the Southern Public Defender Training Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

The SPDTC was founded in 2007 to address a crisis in indigent defense across the country – public defense systems bending under the weight of crushing workloads and lack of resources. 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 SPDTC trains lawyers to both navgiate this broken system and serve as change agents. This summer, the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office sent two of its lawyers and both of its PD Corps Fellows through intensive SPDTC training.  This group will return for more training in January. 

This week, Public Defender Stephen C. Bush brought the founder of the SPDTC, Jon Rapping, to Memphis to lead the entire office in two days of training. This is part of an on-going process for the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office to be more intentional in delivering client-centered services.


Jon Rapping conducting a session at the old Tennessee Supreme Courtroom in Downtown Memphis

Rapping also ran smaller group sessions with office staff and investigators, the leadership team, and the lawyers.  

The SPDTC works primarily with new lawyers and law students, teaching them techniques to cope with and help change the dynamics of the justice system.  Rapping believes this type of training is also crucial to both the mental and professional well-being of veteran public defenders. 

This is especially true in Shelby County where public defenders have seen their workloads double in the last 15 years. 

“I think for many seasoned public defenders, they can get so caught up with the day-to-day of putting out fires, the pressures, the injustices they see… it starts to become a little overwhelming, ” said Rapping. “You can lose sight of the importance of the mission. What this type of training can do for lawyers is remind them of why they started doing this work in the first place.  It can help them rediscover the passion that drove them to this work in the first place.” 


Public Defender Stephen C. Bush opened this small group training session for staff and investigators.

“Our lawyers and staff are under enormous pressure to represent hundreds of clients on a daily basis, ” said Bush. “This level of training — for all of our staff — has never happened in the history of our office. And it’s just the beginning.  This is how we begin the transition from being a good public defender’s office to a model law offices that routinely offers poor clients the very best representation available.” 

Learn more about the SPDTC on their website.  

In January, a documentary about the SPDTC reform movement will premier at the Sundance Film Festival.  Watch the trailer for the film, Gideon’s Army. It will air on HBO this summer. 

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This is a blog by the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office in Memphis, Tenn.