Shelby County’s Jericho Project Wins National ‘Innovations in Criminal Justice’ Award

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Memphis, TN, 2/20/2015 –  The Shelby County Jericho Project has been chosen as one of eight programs across the country approaching criminal justice challenges in new and effective ways. The recipients of the 2015 “Innovations in Criminal Justice Award” were selected by the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA) in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and the Center for Court Innovation.

“I am delighted that we can bring together a multidisciplinary group of criminal justice leaders to discuss initiatives that are examples of a more efficient and effective justice system,” said BJA’s Director Denise O’Donnell. “The program highlights the most innovative criminal justice programs across the nation, but also provides summit participants with the requisite knowledge and skills necessary to implement or replicate these practices in their own jurisdictions.”

The Jericho Project was launched more than a decade ago by the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office to better serve people living with serious mental illness and substance use disorders who were cycling through the criminal justice system.

The main architect of the Jericho Project is Shelby County Chief Public Defender, Stephen Bush. He developed the initiative while an Assistant Public Defender, a position he held for almost 20 years before being appointed Shelby County’s 10th Public Defender in 2010.

“The Jericho Project has helped break down barriers to recovery for hundreds of people since it launched more than a decade ago,” said Bush. “We are honored that a program developed in Shelby County is being recognized as a national model. And particularly so, that this recognition comes from leading national prosecutors. Supporting people who live with addiction and mental illness as they transition from jail to our community is vital work, and we hope this award helps other communities develop better ways of doing it.”

Nearly 60% of those participating in Jericho have successfully completed their recovery plans and also avoided further contact with the criminal justice system. By building linkage plans to community treatment and services tailored to client needs, this comprehensive approach has cut in half the recidivism rate typically found among those with serious mental illness.

The Jericho Project will be recognized at the “Innovations in Criminal Justice Summit III” April  20-21, 2015 in Los Angeles.

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

Download Media Release 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.