Shelby County Public Defender Shares Ideas with Faith Community about Bridging the ‘Justice Gap’

Criminal justice panel for "Healing the Broken Village" conference at U-T Health Science Center
Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush speaking on criminal justice panel for “Healing the Broken Village” conference at U-T Health Science Center.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.” 

That was the consensus statement from a criminal justice panel for the second “Healing the Broken Village” conference.  Public Defender Stephen C. Bush, District Attorney General Amy Weirich, Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Chip Washington, and Chief Michael Rawlings of the Memphis Police Department shared insight with Memphis church leaders.  These faith-based groups are  seeking ways to help solve critical probems in our community.

The conference also featured a health/mental health panel.

On the issue of public safety, panel members urged churches to focus on children in their own neighborhoods as a measure to prevent young people from ever coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

“We arrest the same people over and over again,” said MPD representative, Chief Michael Rawlings. “The criminal justice system alone cannot solve these issues.”

Rawlings suggested that if more of the 2,000 churches in Memphis focused on their neighborhoods, it could make a significant dent in the number of arrests.  Some of Rawlings ideas included providing programs, food, and opening gymnasiums to kids during after school hours — the time of day they are most likely to get into trouble.

Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush supported the idea of a neighborhood focus for churches.

“Take back that corner. What if every church drew a 1,000 yard radius around itself and took the time to get to know every child in that circle?”

Bush added that churches can serve as a refuge from the violence, poverty, and lack of family support that plagues many children — conditions that can lead them into the juvenile court system, and later, the adult court system.

“There are 50,000 children under the age of five in Shelby County,” said Bush. “There is a lot of work being done in our community about the effects of trauma and abuse on children. It affects everything. We’ve known forever how childhood trauma can lead to future violence.”

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Wierich agreed that churches can be partners in the effort to keep kids out of the system.

“Having our faith-based leaders step in and fill a void from 3-7 p.m and on weekends… to cut down on the amount of time kids are just standing around with nothing to do, ” said Wierich. “We need partners.”

Bush offered that crime is not an intractable problem for Memphis, and that a critical link to the solution could come through a concerted effort from local churches.

“It has to be the faith-based community in Memphis. It’s our last, best hope to take back that corner, draw that circle, and go from there. Let’s make sure our children get to the age of 25 with the least amount of damage possible, and we will fix this problem.”

DefendSheylbyCo brings you stories of justice from Memphis… and beyond.

A blog by the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender.