In Shelby County, a program providing comprehensive services to indigent clients has been quietly changing lives for more than a decade.  It’s called the Jericho Project

The program was created to serve individuals living with serious mental illness and substance use disorders who were cycling repeatedly through the justice system. The Jericho Project builds links to community treatment and services that are tailored to the particular needs of the incarcerated client. The Jericho team is composed of specialists from both the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office and a local mental health services provider.

 The team develops “community linkage plans” that are presented to the court in support of community-based, alternative sentences. Recovery Support Specialists on the team support clients for four months after release and help them transition to life in the community.

Since its inception, nearly 60% of those participating in Jericho have successfully completed their recovery plans; they have also avoided further contact with the criminal justice system.  While some may focus on the 40% of participants who are arrested again, consider this — the average recidivism rate among the seriously mentally ill hovers around 80%.  Jericho cuts that number in half.

What began as a grant-funded experiment has matured into a permanent part of Shelby County’s efforts to address the needs of some of its most vulnerable citizens. Its success has made the Jericho Project a national model for how criminal justice systems can better serve people struggling to survive with serious mental illnesses.

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

The chief architect of Jericho is also the Public Defender, Stephen Bush.  He started the project under the direction of then-Public Defender A C Wharton. Today, Bush is a national expert on jail diversion strategies for those battling mental illness. In 2015, Jericho was chosen as one of eight programs across the country for the national “innovations in Criminal Justice” award by the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA).

“The Jericho Project proves that we can do this in Shelby County.  The public defender’s office can serve as a critical link between a client in need and the services that can help her stay out of the system and live a more productive life,” said Shelby County Public Defender Stephen C. Bush. “This approach saves resources — it means fewer arrests, court appearances, and less incarceration time. There is no reason this model can’t be replicated for other clients with special needs  — people who are homeless, those battling addictions — who are better served by help, rather than punishment for actions for which they often have little control.  It makes fiscal sense for taxpayers and from a moral perspective, we must develop more just alternatives to simply locking people up.”

You can learn more about the Jericho Project on this website produced by True Story Pictures. Hear client stories, testimony from national experts about the this comprehensive approach to jail diversion, and watch our award winning documentary about the Jericho Project.

The Jericho Project was recently featured in the L.A. Daily News. Los Angeles County is looking at programs like the Jericho Project to find more effective and efficient jail diversion programs for those dealing with serious and persistent mental illness. You can read the full article here.

Portions of this narrative were republished from an article we submitted to the Memphis Bar Association’s ‘Memphis Lawyer’ magazine.  It ran as the cover story for the February 2013 edition. Click here for the full article.