More than a decade ago, Shelby County created one of the most innovative jail diversion programs in the country. The Jericho Project was developed with the help of the Shelby Public Defender’s Office to help people with mental illness escape the revolving door of the prison system.
When those with mental illness are arrested and unable to afford an attorney, public defenders often find themselves standing in the gap for them, and studies show that people with mental illness will spend 2-5 times longer in custody awaiting disposition of their case than those without a mental illness.
It goes without saying that this is frustrating for families and damaging to those caught in a system that does not function well for healthy people, much less for those with debilitating mental illness.
The Jericho Project is now an established part of the justice system and is coordinated by the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. Stephen C. Bush was instrumental in its design and implementation when he was an assistant public defender.
Today, Bush is the chief public defender and a national expert on jail diversion strategies for the mentally ill.
He was recently interviewed for a national online publication dedicated to mental health issues. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
In the article, Bush answered questions addressing the role of public defenders and some of the challenges that those with mental illness and their families can expect when navigating the criminal justice system.
Here are a few of the questions.
Q: What is the role of the public defender and what role can family members have in communicating with a public defender?
Q: How can family members share information with the public defender if he or she doesn’t seem open to communication?
Q: My loved one has a serious mental illness, but the public defender is not raising this issue in court. Why not?