7 Numbers That Made Memphis Better in 2014

SeeJustice FlagWe hear a lot about injustice today in the form of continuing racial tensions, worsening economic inequality and a dysfunctional criminal justice system. At the start of 2014, these discussions were largely limited to non-profit, government and community organizations who work with those affected, and among those facing these challenges in poor and mostly minority communities.

But by the end of 2014, discussions and debates about injustice are no longer pushed to the margins — this issue is now part of our social media feeds, news stories, community meetings, and family get togethers.  We may not agree on solutions or causes, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to say we live in a country that gives everyone a fair shake.

As a tumultuous year comes to a close — we take note of a few things in Memphis that give us hope. Take a quick look, by the numbers, at efforts in our city that remind us:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” – Martin Luther King, Jr.


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Each day, thousands of Memphians are trying to get a job or a professional license — but can’t.  One major obstacle is a criminal record, which is often a major barrier to employment long after the sentence has expired. Tennessee has narrow expungement laws that can help, but even in the few instances in which someone qualifies, applying for an expungement can require legal guidance, paperwork and hundreds of dollars in filing fees.  In 2014, the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office assisted with paperwork and paid filing fees for 15 people seeking expungement or citizenship right’s restoration. Find out more about the Clean Slate Fund established through a Memphis Bar Foundation grant.


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In 2014, the Jericho Project diverted 97 people battling mental illness and/or addiction from incarceration. Since its inception, nearly 60% of those participating in Jericho have successfully completed their recovery plans; they have also avoided further contact with the criminal justice system. You can learn more about the Jericho Project here.

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Advance Memphis was founded in 1999 to bring economic revitalization to one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Since then, the people of the 38126 community have partnered with this non-profit to build an impressive record. In 2014 alone, 132 people found employment after gaining job and life skills training through Advance Memphis. Read about Advance Memphis here.


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The Community Alliance for the Homeless (CAFTH)  reports that 635 Memphians left homelessness for permanent housing in 2014! These impressive gains were made possible by a network of providers throughout the greater Memphis area. These efforts were coordinated through CAFTH, a private, non-profit entity that provides planning, technical assistance, and service coordination to public and private agencies working to end homelessness in Memphis and Shelby County. Learn about The Community Alliance for the Homeless here.


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On the second Saturday morning of each month, you’ll find civil and criminal lawyers from firms big and small gathered at the Memphis Public Library. It’s the Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS)/Memphis Bar Association (MBA) Saturday Legal Clinic where anyone who needs free legal advice can get it.  In 2014, lawyers volunteering with the MALS/MBA Saturday Legal Clinic served 908 people! Click here to find out more about the MALS/MBA Saturday Legal Clinic.




Lifeline to Success is a non-profit that uses training and community service to provide those returning from incarceration some of the tools they need to have a more productive life. People accepted into the training must begin taking classes 6 months before being released.  After their release, they immediately begin training with Lifeline. The program also runs the highly respected Blight Patrol — people returning from incarceration are put to work clearing blighted lots in Frayser. The result — the Blight Patrol provides a much needed service in a community littered with vacant properties and those doing the work find purpose in helping the community.  In 2014, 89 ex-offenders participated in Lifeline to Success and cleared 3,500 lots in Memphis! You can learn more about Lifeline to Success here.


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If you see a group of cyclists handing out small, shiny, tinfoil packages around Memphis — you may have spotted the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry.  Each Wednesday evening and Saturday morning, volunteers gather to first roll nutritious burritos and put together supplemental packets for those in need (e.g. bug spray in the summer, coats and gloves in the winter). Then they ride through the city distributing these packets to those experiencing homelessness and anyone who is hungry and in need. By serving approximately 300 people each week, The Urban Bicycle Food Ministry estimates it has rolled more than 20,000 burritos in 2014! Read about the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry here.


These seven groups are but a snapshot of the organizations doing good and difficult work in Memphis and Shelby County. These efforts bring hope to those who have none and help clear a path for Memphians who continue to face barriers in our social, civic and criminal justice systems. In 2015, consider supporting these and other organizations that work to bring more equity and access to justice in our community. And when you read about other good and just work being done — share it with us on social media using #SeeJustice

Here’s to a more just Memphis in 2015!

Shelby County Public Defender’s Office Awards First Expungement Grant

Taurus did so well in the temporary job she held for two years, that her employer wanted to hire her permanently.  She filled out the paperwork and her employer ran a background check. Then she was promptly … let go.

That’s because a felony conviction from 2007 showed up on her record.  Taurus had long ago completed her probation and diversion requirements for the conviction and paid all of her court costs.  She was also eligible for expungement, but there was a catch.  She couldn’t afford the $450 filing fee. So her record remained public and marred by that single conviction.

Now Taurus was not only denied full-time employment — she also lost the temporary job she’d been holding, successfully, for two years.

“It’s been very difficult for me to get other employment.  It’s difficult to get housing, because I don’t have any employment,” said Taurus. “The housing I could afford, most of them do background checks.  So it was very difficult for me to get a new start.  I am trying  to start over again, and every time I try to pursue employment, that is the only thing hindering me. My record. Even temporary agencies! I went to every temporary agency in Memphis.  Once my background hit, they did not send me to any work, period.  None. Not even for short-term employment. I can’t even work at fast food restaurants! It has been hard for me to get my foot in the door.”

Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Josh Spickler with the first grant recipient of the Clean Slate Fund
Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Josh Spickler (right) with Taurus, the first grant recipient of the Clean Slate Fund

But in a few weeks, all that will change. If Taurus doesn’t get a job, it will have nothing to do with a criminal record. That’s because her record will have been successfully expunged with the help of a new program at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office funded by the Memphis Bar Foundation.  It’s called the Clean Slate Fund and last week, Taurus became the first grant recipient.

The Clean Slate Fund offers qualified applicants a $350 grant to cover the expungement fees charged by the State of Tennessee.  Taurus qualified for expungement under Tennessee’s diversion law, which requires a $450 fee. So she came up with $100 to add to the grant amount.

But the Clean Slate grant will cover the entire fee required in a new expungement law passed in 2012. This law applies to those who didn’t qualify under the old diversion rules. When crafted, the legislation promised to help hundreds of people clear their records. But it was so  narrowly written, that only a few dozen Memphians even qualified. Of those who did, many could not afford the filing fee.

Why? In many cases, as it was for Taurus’, they couldn’t get a job with a criminal record.

Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Josh Spickler is directing the Clean Slate Fund.  He’s been in contact with the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office, which executes the expungement applications under the new law. Spickler says the D.A’.s office has approved a stack of expungement petitions that meet the requirements but have been unable to file them. Most likely, because the petitioners can’t pay the fee.

Now the Clean Slate Fund can help some of these applicants clear that final, financial hurdle

“If the Memphis Bar Association and the attorneys of Memphis, committed to giving to its foundation, can contribute $350 to an individual like Taurus,” says Spickler, “it can take her out of the cycle of persistent unemployment and help put her in a better position to get a job. That will save the community the enormous resources it takes to support someone who cannot support herself.  This fund can remove a barrier so an individual can become a productive citizen. It’s a no brainer to spend a little bit of money to put a person on a better trajectory.”

If you or someone you know might be qualified for expungement, please choose from the following options:

1.  To apply for expungement of your Tennessee record, please click this link for information and an application form.

2.  If you have already filled out the paperwork and qualified for expungement of your Tennessee record but cannot afford the fee, you can click this link to download a Clean Slate grant application. Fill out and mail to:

The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office
2nd floor, 201 Poplar Ave.
Memphis, TN 38103
Attn: Josh Spickler

3.  Candidates who have already filled out the paper and qualified for expungement of their Tennessee record but cannot afford the fee can also start the grant application process online here:

Top 10 Stories of Justice in 2012 from the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office


It’s been a big year for public defense in Shelby County. We’d like to share a few of those stories with you as we prepare to head into 2013.

Here are our picks for Top Stories of Justice in 2012 plucked from JustCity.org and beyond:

10. New Expungement Law in Tennessee.

In May, Governor Haslam signed a law that would expunge Tennessee criminal records for those who meet certain conditions.  Our office had high hopes that this new law would provide relief to already productive citizens who’ve been burdened with a conviction long after paying their debts. But the expungement came with a pricetag and conditions that significantly limited its application. To date, our offfice is aware of only 19 people in Shelby County who have actually benefited from the new law.

 9. Shelby County Public Defenders Earn Recognition. 

This year, our office received state and national attention for going above and beyond.  In April, Assistant Public Defender Bill Robilio was recognized by the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) for outstanding service to his peers.  Robilio regularly volunteers to help fellow lawyers struggling with personal and health issues.  In August, Assistant Public Defender Kamilah Turner became the first public defender in Tennessee to win the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (TACDL) award for high quality trial advocacy.  Also in August, Dir. of the Defender’s Resource Network and JustCity co-editor, Josh Spickler, was invited to present at the Brennan Center Community-Oriented Public Defense Network conference in New York City. Shelby County was recognized for its innovative use of digital media and presentation formats to communicate with the public.

8.  National Leaders in Criminal Justice Reform Bring Training to Shelby County.  

This year, our office brought in national experts to help improve the quality of indigent defense in Shelby County.  In November, we welcomed the founder of the Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC), Jonathan Rapping, a nationally recognized trainer in client-centered public defense. Our entire legal and non-legal staff participated in lecture and small group training.  In December, the American Bar Association (ABA) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) provided our entire office with a grant-funded two-day training program in forensic science.  The program was designed to help our lawyers identify and challenge junk science in the courtroom.

7. Shelby County Receives National Recognition for Helping Mentally Ill Clients. 

Since developing the Jericho Project more than a decade ago,  Shelby County Public Defender Stephen C. Bush has become a national voice for the compassionate and effective defense of those with mental illness.  In October, Bush was interviewed for a national publication, offering guidelines for other lawyers addressing the needs of clients with mental illness.  In December, Bush was invited to present before a team from the National Association of Counties (NACo) to outline the innovative strategies behind the Jericho project.

6.  First ‘Street Court’ for Homeless in Memphis

This summer, our office coordinated the first ever Street Court for Project Homeless Connect – a one-day, one-stop effort to offer services to the city’s homeless population.  The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office collaborated with prosecutors, a judge, court clerks, and host of law student volunteers to assist homeless clients with criminal matters. The Street Court was such a success that it will be offered again at Project Homeless Connect in 2013 and will be implemented by University of Memphis Law School students for their 2013 alternative spring break.

5.  State of Public Defense in Shelby County Cover Story of the Memphis Flyer

In February, Memphis’ alternative weekly featured the work of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office as its cover story.  The article detailed the dire resource situation our office faces operating in the poorest big city in America, but it also highlighted the opportunities that lay ahead as our office seeks to become a model and help lead the national indigent defense reform efforts underway.

4.  Man Facing Death Penalty Freed by Capital Defense Team

In July, Capital Defense Team lead atttorney Gerald Skahan and his team won acquital for a man charged with murder. The team argued that he acted in self defense. Forty-two year old Ealroad Davis would have joined 88 others on Tennessee’s death row, if convicted.  The Capital Defense Team was able to show that the death was the result of an argument that ended tragically. Davis was set free after spending nearly 3 years in detention awaiting trail.

3.  Two of Nation’s Top Law School Grads Join Shelby County Public Defender’s Office

This summer, Memphis welcomed its first class from the Public Defender Corps program.  Two new law schools grads, one from Yale and one from the University of Alabama, joined the Shelby County Public Defender’s office as part of a three-year program. This marks the first time Shelby County was selected to participate in the program.

2.  Shelby County and Davidson County Public Defenders Join Forces to Correct a Multimillion Dollar Funding Error

In April, Davidson County Public Defender Dawn Deaner and Shelby County Public Defender Stephen C. Bush testified before the Tennessee General Assembly to request a correction in state funding for Davidson and Shelby County. The miscalculation in state funding has recurred for more than 20 years.  State lawmakers did not approve the fix in the 2012 session, but efforts are underway to address the issue in 2013.

1.  Department of Justice Investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court

In April, the Department of Justice released a landmark report citing the the Shelby County Juvenile Court for due process and equal protection violations — insufficient access to counsel and the courts and disproportionate treatment of black children.  In December, the DOJ and Juvenile Court reached an agreement.  In the agreement, the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office has been given the responsiblity of creating a juvenile defense unit to represent the children of our community.  No doubt, this will also be a top story in 2013.

It’s been a big year for justice in Shelby County and 2013 looks to be even bigger.

Check back with us at JustCity.org for more stories of justice from Memphis and beyond.  

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