ACLU Features Shelby County Public Defender

Ben RushShelby County Asst. Public Defender
Ben Rush
Shelby Co. Asst. Public Defender

The 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Gideon vs Wainwright has sparked a national conversation about the state of public defense.  Many of the stories have looked at the broader effects of the landmark case which established the right to appointed counsel.

Read our digital collection of Gideon at 50 articles.

The ACLU is taking a more focused storytelling approach by featuring the people who encounter our public defense system on a daily basis.  The Gideon Real Stories Project was launched on March 18th, 2013 – the 50th anniversary of Gideon.

The inaugural post features Shelby County Assistant Public Defender, Ben Rush.

Rush, a graduate of University of Mississippi Law School, has been with the Shelby County Public Defender’s office since 2011. He is assigned to General Sessions Criminal Court, the busiest courtrooms in the county.  He is a Gideon’s Promise Fellow —  a program for the nation’s top young public defenders to receive training in client-centered lawyering.

In his interview for the ACLU’s Gideon Real Stories Project, Rush talks about the dilemma his impoverished clients face — immediately plead guilty to a crime or sit in jail awaiting their day in court, because they can’t afford bail.

Listen here to this brief, but powerful interview with Rush.

Want to Get Memphis Off All the ‘Bad’ Lists? Focus on Child Poverty.

Children growing up in poverty… are growing up under extreme stress.
It could be affecting how their brains develop.
If any city should care – it’s Memphis.  We have 67,000 children under the age of five. Their brains are developing and will continue to develop for many more years. And they are growing up in one the poorest big cities in the U.S.  Almost half of all Memphis children live in poverty.


According to the Urban Child Institute, when the part of a child’s brain that responds to stress is overstimulated, it can impair the ability to learn. This is happening on a massive scale in Memphis
Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity, sometimes caused by environment and home life. The more we learn, the more we find that early childhood events and conditions can have effects that last long into adulthood.

An over-active stress management system can cause disruptions in the development of brain circuitry and increase risk of a compromised immune system, hypertension, heart disease, obesity, substance abuse, and mental illness. In other words, early childhood experiences have life-long effects.

When young children develop in toxic environments associated with poverty, their brains naturally make survival their top priority. The result is that parts of the brain associated with survival are prioritized, rather than areas of the brain that control higher order thinking and reasoning.

The result is that insult is added to injury. A child born into a disadvantaged environment also has a more difficult time learning. Recent studies show, for example, that young children exposed to high levels of domestic violence have IQs at age 5 that are up to 8 points lower than those of otherwise similar children.

                                                                                                   -Urban Child Institute

You can read the full article here.  It also links to intriguing graphs and statistics about poverty in Memphis and Shelby county.

The good news – the affects of poverty aren’t intractable. According to the Urban Child Institute, quality educational interventions made with both children and parents can help kids catch up.

JustCity brings you stories of justice from Memphis and beyond.

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

Memphis Success Tied to Reducing Poverty


“It is nothing short of criminal that almost half our children are living in conditions of grinding, concentrated poverty.  But if the moral and religious reasons aren’t enough for action, it’s in our enlightened self-interest because poverty and its web of problems drive up the cost of government and drive down our economic opportunity.”

– Smart City Memphis blog

It’s the poverty, stupid.” That’s the blunt assessment of a Smart City Memphis post about what our number one priority should be in Memphis.  The post was a response to recent statistics comparing the economic conditions in 35 regions of the U.S.  

The post does not site the origin of the study, but the numbers closely resemble this 2011 Strategic Assessment report released about the St. Louis Region.  This study compared 35 peer regions and found Memphis, sadly, ranked #1 in several key areas that are crippling to social and economic growth.

Our education, public safety, and economic wellness have continued to rise and fall with the level of poverty in our community.  More than one-quarter of this city’s population (26.5) lives in poverty. This is why Memphis Mayor AC Wharton is seeking Tennessee governor Bill Haslam’s commitment to lower the poverty rate in Memphis by 10% in the next 10 years. 

In this 2011 article, Memphis Magazine contributor Tom Jones put Memphis’ poverty rate into perspective – approximately 150,000 Memphians live in poverty, which makes it a “city” the size of Chattanooga. 

The Smart City Memphis post argues that while education reform must continue (and we would add criminal justice reform) none of these efforts can move the needle significantly if the root causes of poverty in Memphis are not sytematically addressed.  

“It is the moral and economic issue of our time and there is no issue that more deserves concerted effort.” 

 – Smart City Memphis blog

Read more stories of justice from Memphis and beyond here on JustCity