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.

‘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 


Top 10 Stories of Justice in 2012 from the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office


It’s been a big year for public defense in Shelby County. We’d like to share a few of those stories with you as we prepare to head into 2013.

Here are our picks for Top Stories of Justice in 2012 plucked from and beyond:

10. New Expungement Law in Tennessee.

In May, Governor Haslam signed a law that would expunge Tennessee criminal records for those who meet certain conditions.  Our office had high hopes that this new law would provide relief to already productive citizens who’ve been burdened with a conviction long after paying their debts. But the expungement came with a pricetag and conditions that significantly limited its application. To date, our offfice is aware of only 19 people in Shelby County who have actually benefited from the new law.

 9. Shelby County Public Defenders Earn Recognition. 

This year, our office received state and national attention for going above and beyond.  In April, Assistant Public Defender Bill Robilio was recognized by the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) for outstanding service to his peers.  Robilio regularly volunteers to help fellow lawyers struggling with personal and health issues.  In August, Assistant Public Defender Kamilah Turner became the first public defender in Tennessee to win the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (TACDL) award for high quality trial advocacy.  Also in August, Dir. of the Defender’s Resource Network and JustCity co-editor, Josh Spickler, was invited to present at the Brennan Center Community-Oriented Public Defense Network conference in New York City. Shelby County was recognized for its innovative use of digital media and presentation formats to communicate with the public.

8.  National Leaders in Criminal Justice Reform Bring Training to Shelby County.  

This year, our office brought in national experts to help improve the quality of indigent defense in Shelby County.  In November, we welcomed the founder of the Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC), Jonathan Rapping, a nationally recognized trainer in client-centered public defense. Our entire legal and non-legal staff participated in lecture and small group training.  In December, the American Bar Association (ABA) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) provided our entire office with a grant-funded two-day training program in forensic science.  The program was designed to help our lawyers identify and challenge junk science in the courtroom.

7. Shelby County Receives National Recognition for Helping Mentally Ill Clients. 

Since developing the Jericho Project more than a decade ago,  Shelby County Public Defender Stephen C. Bush has become a national voice for the compassionate and effective defense of those with mental illness.  In October, Bush was interviewed for a national publication, offering guidelines for other lawyers addressing the needs of clients with mental illness.  In December, Bush was invited to present before a team from the National Association of Counties (NACo) to outline the innovative strategies behind the Jericho project.

6.  First ‘Street Court’ for Homeless in Memphis

This summer, our office coordinated the first ever Street Court for Project Homeless Connect – a one-day, one-stop effort to offer services to the city’s homeless population.  The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office collaborated with prosecutors, a judge, court clerks, and host of law student volunteers to assist homeless clients with criminal matters. The Street Court was such a success that it will be offered again at Project Homeless Connect in 2013 and will be implemented by University of Memphis Law School students for their 2013 alternative spring break.

5.  State of Public Defense in Shelby County Cover Story of the Memphis Flyer

In February, Memphis’ alternative weekly featured the work of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office as its cover story.  The article detailed the dire resource situation our office faces operating in the poorest big city in America, but it also highlighted the opportunities that lay ahead as our office seeks to become a model and help lead the national indigent defense reform efforts underway.

4.  Man Facing Death Penalty Freed by Capital Defense Team

In July, Capital Defense Team lead atttorney Gerald Skahan and his team won acquital for a man charged with murder. The team argued that he acted in self defense. Forty-two year old Ealroad Davis would have joined 88 others on Tennessee’s death row, if convicted.  The Capital Defense Team was able to show that the death was the result of an argument that ended tragically. Davis was set free after spending nearly 3 years in detention awaiting trail.

3.  Two of Nation’s Top Law School Grads Join Shelby County Public Defender’s Office

This summer, Memphis welcomed its first class from the Public Defender Corps program.  Two new law schools grads, one from Yale and one from the University of Alabama, joined the Shelby County Public Defender’s office as part of a three-year program. This marks the first time Shelby County was selected to participate in the program.

2.  Shelby County and Davidson County Public Defenders Join Forces to Correct a Multimillion Dollar Funding Error

In April, Davidson County Public Defender Dawn Deaner and Shelby County Public Defender Stephen C. Bush testified before the Tennessee General Assembly to request a correction in state funding for Davidson and Shelby County. The miscalculation in state funding has recurred for more than 20 years.  State lawmakers did not approve the fix in the 2012 session, but efforts are underway to address the issue in 2013.

1.  Department of Justice Investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court

In April, the Department of Justice released a landmark report citing the the Shelby County Juvenile Court for due process and equal protection violations — insufficient access to counsel and the courts and disproportionate treatment of black children.  In December, the DOJ and Juvenile Court reached an agreement.  In the agreement, the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office has been given the responsiblity of creating a juvenile defense unit to represent the children of our community.  No doubt, this will also be a top story in 2013.

It’s been a big year for justice in Shelby County and 2013 looks to be even bigger.

Check back with us at for more stories of justice from Memphis and beyond.  

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