Statement on Tennessee HB 241

Proposed State Legislation Would Repeal Local Funding Rule

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Memphis, TN, 2/20/2015 – Tennessee lawmakers have introduced legislation that would repeal T.C.A. 16-2-518, the so-called “75% Rule” for local public defender funding. The rule was established in 1992 and requires that local government provide funding to the public defender at 75% of any funding increase to the district attorney general.

The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office opposes passage of House Bill 241 and Senate Bill 1324, which would dismantle fiscally sound legislation that has served our community and state well for more than 20 years.

The 75% Rule helps ensure fairness in a necessarily adversarial system. Repeal of this longstanding and sensible check on spending would alter the balance that must exist when life and liberty are at stake, as they are daily in the criminal justice system.

Local government helps fund public defense in Tennessee’s urban centers, while the State is the primary funding source for public defenders elsewhere. The 75% Rule has worked for more than two decades to keep costs down for both State and local government. Repeal of this rule is a solution looking for a problem. It is unclear how this community and the State of Tennessee would benefit from the removal of this smart and fiscally responsible mandate.

What is clear is that removing this mandated balancing mechanism has the potential to drive up costs for the State, destabilize the funding structure of our local criminal justice system and trigger a dangerous imbalance in our courtrooms.  A weakened public defender system exposes the community to more wrongful convictions, unfair sentences and, ultimately, a more expensive County Jail.

The 75% Rule is the kind of policy that Tennesseans should be proud of. It should not be repealed.  We urge our state lawmakers to uphold this commitment to fairness, justice and good stewardship by voting against HB 241 and SB 1324.

Media Contact: Josh Spickler at 901.216.2024 or josh.spickler@shelbycountytn.gov

Download Statement PDF Here

‘Gideon’s Promise’ Visit Raises Awareness about Role of Public Defense in Memphis

Memphis stop focuses on overloaded criminal justice system, workload stress for public defenders and pressure on clients to plead guilty.
'Gideon's Promise' founder Jon Rapping speaking at a Memphis social about his organization's efforts.
‘Gideon’s Promise’ founder Jon Rapping speaking at a Memphis social about his organization’s efforts.

When ‘Gideon’s Promise‘ chose Memphis as a stop on its four-city tour, the goal was to raise awareness of the organization and the work of public defense.

The two-day visit did that and also strengthened the connection between one of the most innovative criminal defense training programs in the country, and Tennessee’s largest and oldest public defense system.

This summer, ten promising young attorneys from the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office will begin training with the Gideon’s Promise program at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. They will join a cohort of ten of their colleagues already in the program. With the addition of these newly trained attorneys, nearly 25% of the attorney staff at the public defender’s office will have received Gideon’s Promise training.

This type of “incremental” change is what Gideon’s Promise founder Jon Rapping and reform-minded chief public defenders, like Shelby County’s Stephen Bush, hope will help drive efforts to make the system more fair for both client and attorney … office-by-office throughout the South.

What many people may not realize is that the fate of client and attorney are closely aligned, particularly inside the public defender’s office,” says Stephen Bush. “That’s because an overworked criminal justice system too often results in negative results for both parties — public defenders are overwhelmed with cases and cannot consistently deliver the quality results they are willing and capable of delivering and clients that do want a trial are often discouraged to hold out for their day in court, because they could spend days, weeks, months … even years…. waiting.

During the visit, Commercial Appeal columnist David Waters, featured one of our office’s Gideon’s Promise attorneys. The article described the frustration both he and his clients experience in a system that incentivizes plea agreements and in which a jury trial often comes at too high a cost.

“If you can’t bond out, that changes everything. That’s when the pressure starts building to make a deal. You’re sitting in jail and your life is falling apart and it’s probably already a mess.”  – Ben Rush, Assistant Shelby County Public Defender (Commercial Appeal, 5/30/14.)

In an article published in the Memphis Flyer, Rapping emphasized that the goal of Gideon’s Promise is to provide new attorneys the tools to effectively fight for their clients, but also to provide the emotional support public defenders need.

I really started to see these systems where really passionate, young public defenders would go in for the right reasons and have that passion beaten out of them. They would either quit or resign to the status quo. This organization really developed to be a program that not only provides training but provides support and inspiration to these lawyers so they don’t lose their idealism.”  – Jon Rapping, Gideon’s Promise (Memphis Flyer, 5/31/14)

You can learn more about the Gideon’s Promise program here. You can also support the organization’s efforts by donating online.

Read the full articles about the Gideon’s Promise visit to Memphis here:
David Waters: Incarcerated Until Proven Guilty
Attorneys and Advocates Aim to Improve Public Defense 

 

True Believers In Justice

After a successful opening at the Sundance Film Festival last month, the film, Gideon’s Army, is getting great reviews and a lot of good press. Check out the trailer above and the Op-Doc introduction by the film’s director, Dawn Porter. The film was featured by the New York Times as one of three independent films supported in part by the Sundance Institute.

Check out this preview and watch for the film on HBO this spring!