Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush Featured in National Article

Jericho_NewTag_CMYK_HorMore than a decade ago, Shelby County created one of the most innovative jail diversion programs in the country. The Jericho Project was developed with the help of the Shelby Public Defender’s Office to help people with mental illness escape the revolving door of the prison system.

When those with mental illness are arrested and unable to afford an attorney, public defenders often find themselves standing in the gap for them, and studies show that people with mental illness will spend 2-5 times longer in custody awaiting disposition of their case than those without a mental illness.

It goes without saying that this is frustrating for families and damaging to those caught in a system that does not function well for healthy people, much less for those with debilitating mental illness.

Chief Public Defender Stephen C. Bush  Photo by Justin Fox Burks Photography
Stephen C. Bush
Shelby County Public Defender
Photo by Justin Fox Burks

The Jericho Project is now an established part of the justice system and is coordinated by the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.  Stephen C. Bush was instrumental in its design and implementation when he was an assistant public defender.

Today, Bush is the chief public defender and a national expert on jail diversion strategies for the mentally ill.

He was recently interviewed for a national online publication dedicated to mental health issues. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.

In the article, Bush answered questions addressing the role of public defenders and some of the challenges that those with mental illness and their families can expect when navigating the criminal justice system.

Here are a few of the questions.

Q: What is the role of the public defender and what role can family members have in communicating with a public defender?

Q: How can family members share information with the public defender if he or she doesn’t seem open to communication?

Q: My loved one has a serious mental illness, but the public defender is not raising this issue in court. Why not?

45460999-namiSee the answers to these and other questions on NAMI’s website.



Memphis Flyer Viewpoint Column: For the Defense


Memphis Flyer Viewpoint Column first published January 4, 2012

By Stephen C. Bush, Shelby County Public Defender

A lot was said over the past year about the haves and have-nots, about the 1% and the rest of us, about the growing income gap in America. In Memphis, we’ve been told it’s even worse; we live in the poorest big city in America. As the Public Defender for Shelby County, I see the results of this disparity first hand. Every day in the criminal justice system, our office represents hundreds of people, who are threatened with loss of liberty and cannot afford representation. In the civil courts, scores of attorneys assist the growing number of those who cannot hire a lawyer; many of these attorneys work without compensation. 

Here and across the country, people face major challenges to their ability to access justice, and the problem is magnified in communities like ours, already hard-hit by economic and social problems. If you need a lawyer and cannot afford one, you face an unprecedented justice gap that is vast and expanding.

An estimated four-fifths of low-income Americans do not have access to a lawyer when they need one. Independent non-profit legal aid programs like Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS) are working to bridge this gap. Created in the wake of Dr. King’s death over 40 years ago, MALS exists to help those who cannot afford basic legal advice or advocacy.

For most of us, responding to unlawful debt collection attempts or battling an unscrupulous landlord may mean a quick phone call for advice or, in some situations, a few hundred dollars to retain an attorney. However, the number of people who cannot do this has never been higher. In 2007, MALS received 7,000 requests for services. Last year, that number tripled to 21,000 requests. At the same time, MALS is facing consecutive years of federal funding cuts resulting in a net loss of $300,000 in revenue in just two years.

Despite these obstacles, MALS staff, the Community Legal Center, the Memphis Bar Association, dozens of big and small law firms and individual lawyers and students have joined them, giving time, money and a voice, to help meet the need.

The nation’s public defense system faces a similar crisis. It is estimated that 80% of those charged with a crime are eligible for court-appointed counsel. Public defender systems are stretched dangerously thin, and there is little to suggest things will get better soon. In the foreword of a new book on the topic, former FBI Director and federal judge, William Sessions, goes so far as to say, “Our nation’s public defense systems in state courts, with few exceptions, should be a source of great embarrassment for all of us: judges, bar associations, lawyers, public officials, and all other citizens.” 

In Shelby County, we are not embarrassed, but we are aware of the damage done by the justice gap. In 2012, the 74 attorneys at the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender will step forward and stand in that gap over 30,000 times for those in our community who need us. And we are not simply busy defending our clients; we are retooling the way we practice law to ensure that there is justice for a new generation. 

Established in 1917, we are the fourth oldest defender office in the country, and we stand proudly in the gap, on the shoulders of almost 100 years of dedicated public defenders who have helped prepare us for these challenges.

In this moment, we cannot compromise on justice; living in poverty is hard enough. Our community has more than its share of hurting families, unemployment, substance abuse, hunger, sickness, mental illness, homelessness . . . the list goes on. These problems create more have-nots, more gaps. We cannot afford that. We must bear these costs together.

The lawyers who seek justice in this community will not stop going to court everyday. We will continue to advocate for the least among us no matter what. Those of us who are able will help bridge the funding gap. But if we hope to fully close the justice gap, we need help. Justice doesn’t begin in the courtroom; it begins in the community.


Originally published in the Memphis Flyer January 4, 2012