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 It should not be repealed.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

NPR Explores Progress, Remaining Challenges at Shelby County Juvenile Court

“This work is going to take time; it’s going to take deep commitment. But we really are talking about justice for a new generation.” – Stephen Bush, Shelby County Chief Public Defender

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It’s a long game — the reform of the Shelby County Juvenile Court.  As this recent story on NPR’s Morning Edition illustrates so well, there is still a very long way to go.

Whether you’ve been keeping up with the stories about Shelby County Juvenile Court reform or not, this piece by NPR provides a good overview of changes that have taken place since a scathing investigation by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division was released in 2012.

The report claimed that Shelby County’s Juvenile Court has been responsible for systemic violation of due process rights for children. Perhaps more damaging, the DOJ conducted a detailed analysis of five years of court data that showed the court treated black children more harshly than white children. This disparity was most stark in cases where children were facing transfer to the adult system.

In the 2013 Memorandum of Agreement between the DOJ, Shelby County and the Juvenile Court, the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office was tapped to oversee the transformation of the juvenile defender function.  This marked the first time the Public Defender had been directly responsible for defending children in forty years.

The office’s newly formed Juvenile Defender Unit began taking cases at the start of 2014.  By late August or early September, the office will open a stand-alone juvenile defender center next to the court. The new center, renovated carefully with the needs of children and their families in mind, will provide a safe and welcoming environment for this new, difficult and highly-specialized advocacy.

You can listen to the story here.  Or read the transcript here, although we highly recommend the audio version.

The full DOJ report and the 2013 Memorandum of Agreement are available here.

Students ‘Plunge’ into Access to Justice Disparities

They are high school students attending one of the most prestigious private schools in Memphis. While St. Mary’s is proud of its  generations of high-achieving students and alumnae, the Episcopal girls’ school also encourages civic involvement.

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Students with St. Mary’s Episcopal School learning about access to justice issues from assistant Shelby County Public Defender, Josh Spickler (speaking bottom right.)

That’s why a group of 18 girls took part in the school’s week-long “Service Plunge,” which included a stop at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.

Assistant Chaplain, Susan Whitten, coordinated the service/learning camp — students researched and discussed a topic area in the morning and connected with a related service organization in the afternoon to learn more or volunteer. The theme for this  year’s camp was “access” — access to quality food, housing, education, health and justice.

If people don’t have access or the knowledge of how to access those services or to get help, they really do fall between the cracks,” said Whitten. “That’s really one of the big ways we can change things in Memphis, is if we can help people have the knowledge of those services and for them to be able to access them.

The access to justice component of the plunge included watching a video about the Jericho project, a jail diversion program for those living with serious mental illness and substance use disorders.

Josh Spickler, Director of the Defender’s Resource Network for the public defender’s office, also gave a presentation that focused on mass incarceration statistics, as well as the systemic inequities for poor criminal defendants in Shelby County — the same people who are charged in the more than 30,000 cases handled annually by the Shelby County Public Defenders.

The young women in this camp asked excellent questions about our justice system,” said Spickler.  “They seemed to really struggle with why so few resources have been devoted to such a tremendous need in our community. That’s a question our lawyers struggle with everyday.”

Rising Sophomore Rachel Caldwell is on St. Mary’s mock trial team. She aspires to be a doctor, but she’s fascinated with what she’s learned about the public defender’s office.

Caldwell said she believes teenagers are ready and open to learn about difficult issues, such as racial disparities within the criminal justice system.  She believes not enough professionals think to share this kind of information with people her age … and Caldwell things they should.

We are the future. We are old enough to know. We’re not necessarily old enough to do something about it now, but we’ll be there someday,” says Caldwell. “If we have the correct knowledge and understanding to address the problem early enough, then we can do a good job.”

And that’s exactly why Chaplain Whitten coordinates this camp each year.

I’m hoping that when they hear from people like Josh [Spickler] that they’ll be inspired and think, ‘I can do that. I can be a public defender,'” says Whitten. “Getting the word out about these types of programs and developing these kinds of programs, like the Jericho project, like the kinds of great things that Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush is doing … that they’ll think, ‘I love Memphis and I want to come back. I want to do something like that.’  We have to show them a model and show them it’s possible. Then they can dream to become it.”

You can read about the other organizations these St. Mary’s campers visited in this Commercial Appeal article.