Tennessee Sees Shorter Prison Sentences; Former Prisoners Still Not Ready


Both the Nashville Tennessean and the Memphis Commercial Appeal ran a story yesterday about the average length of stay for inmates in Tennessee prisons. The story relies heavily on a Pew Center on the States report that measured the average length of stay for people sent to prison in 35 states. The story turns on the finding that Tennessee inmates served less time than all but three other states in the study, serving an average of 1.9 years.

The story continues by noting that this average is lower than it has been in quite some time. Importantly, “state officials” point out that despite this shortening of average time served, sentences for violent crimes have risen 41% over that same time.

What is NOT mentioned in the article and will likely be lost in any analysis that follows, are the crushing consequences of the convictions from which these sentences arose. There is much more to a criminal conviction than the sentence imposed by the court.

 Society’s punishment for wrongdoing continues long after the gavel drops and the jailer unlocks the doors.

Whether it be lifetime assignment to a registry, loss of voting rights, crushing financial debt or the permanent stigma of a conviction, climbing back into the mainstream is, more often than not, impossible for the 95% of all prisoners who will eventually be released back into their communities.

Consider the following:


  •  A recent Brennan Center for Justice study of criminal justice debt in 15 states found that 15 of 15 states impose fees that attach upon conviction; 15 of 15 states impose parole, probation or other supervision fees; and 15 of 15 states have laws authorizing the imposition of jail or prison fees.
  • 15-27% of prisoners expect to go to homeless shelters after release according to the Second Chance Act of 2004.
  • A California study found that 60 to 80% of prisoners are unemployed one year after release.
  • There are at least 180 statutes in Tennessee that limit or restrict some right or privilege upon criminal conviction.

We applaud Tennessee’s economic approach to prison sentences. However, no matter how little time they’ve served, most of these former prisoners are wholly unprepared for reintegration into our communities. We know without a doubt that unsheltered, uneducated, unemployed and financially burdened former prisoners return to prison at alarming rates.

And we know that money well spent on re-entry programs like New York’s Center for Employment Opportunities (C.E.O.) reduces recidivism.

A revolving door that simply spins faster is hardly a victory in the battle for justice in our community.


Read JustCity for more stories of justice from Memphis and beyond.

New Residents Help Make Memphis a More Just City

What does it take to live in Memphis?


That was the question Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck posed to readers in his most recent Sunday column. His answer was not about BBQ, music or even low cost of living. Instead, it invoked one of Memphis’ greatest weaknesses: poverty.  Interestingly, one of our city’s biggest challenges has become a hook for the smart, talented and socially aware.

“There is one other thing moving to Memphis will demand of you. A social conscience.”

Peck went on to mention some of the impressive newcomers, who have come to Memphis with a desire to make a difference.

Listed among these new Memphians was one of our newest Shelby County Public Defenders…

“Katherine Oberembt, a 2012 Yale Law School graduate, . . .  arrived in Memphis as part of the Public Defender Corps, a nationwide program to encourage justice reform.”

Oberembt is one of two new attorneys who have come to Memphis as part of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office first PD Corps class. Laurie Sansbury, a recent graduate of the University of Alabama School of Law, has also moved to Memphis as part of this three-year program.

Read more about the PD Corps in this Commercial Appeal article.

The Peck article went on to cite service as a critical recruiting tool that some Memphis organizations are utilizing to attract talented, socially-aware employees.

Choose 901 is another relatively new local recruiting effort. Its key component is a website based entirely on Memphis’ deep service culture as a means to attract U.S. college students and recent grads to the Mid-South.  Earlier this year, Newsweek magazine recognized Rhodes College of Memphis as the nation’s top service-oriented school for the second year in a row.

The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office is proud to be part of this community’s committment to those in need, and we welcome Laurie, Katherine and all of the new Memphians, who are here to make this a more just city!


How Bad Is the Disparity in Federal Funding for Indigent Defense?


jag.jpg.scaled1000Seven-tenths of one percent!

Based on the results of a recent study by the General Accounting Office, states awarded only .7 percent of all Byrne JAG money to indigent legal defense over a five year period. Byrne JAG grants are federal monies competitively awarded to state and local governments for use in criminal justice systems.

Robert M. A. Johnson, a former county prosecutor in Minnesota and a current co-chair of The Constitution Project’s National Right to Counsel Committee, detailed the causes and dangers of this continued discrepancy in a recent op-ed for The Hill.

As Johnson reminds us, while police, courts and prosecutors receive the lion’s share of Federal grant money in the criminal justice system, the right to counsel is the only function of this system that is guaranteed by the Constitution.

Johnson further points out that despite encouragement from The Constitution Project and others, we are far from the ideal when it comes to prioritizing the distribution of these grants. Read his op-ed. How will we develop a fairer distribution of federal grants? Why is it important?

For a good review of the right to counsel in America, see the excellent report “Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel”