Byline: Beth Warren
Aug. 05--Memphis is joining a movement to reform how indigent defendants are treated -- in and out of the courthouse. The idea is that public defenders may be able to help curb recidivism by helping their clients address many underlying problems, such as mental illness, unemployment and drug or alcohol addictions. Memphis' forward-thinking helped the city earn a part in the lauded national Public Defenders Corp. program, said Jonathan Rapping, founder and president of Atlanta-based Southern Public Defender Training Center. The center and the D.C.-based Equal Justice Works lead the program, which also receives funding from the U.S. Department of Justice. More than 450 law graduates from across the country applied for a spot in the 2012 program, with just 19 making the final cut. After intensive training, the fellows are now a week into their new assignments. In Tennessee, they're working with indigent defendants in Knoxville and Nashville -- and for the first time ever, Memphis. This week, Yale Law School graduate Katherine Oberembt and University of Alabama School of Law graduate Laurie Sansbury began their three-year fellowships working at the Shelby County Public Defender's Office. Two public defenders, Ben Rush and Brooke Hyman, are going through the same training, including a recent law school boot camp in Birmingham. Along with Tennessee, program officials selected New York, West Virginia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky. Rapping, considered one of the nation's most seasoned public defenders, has helped recruit, teach and mentor more than 200 lawyers. This year, the center is molding 52, including the two Shelby County public defenders along with Oberembt, Sansbury and the other 17 fellows. The fledgling attorneys hone legal skills, such as catching up on the latest research on eyewitness misidentifications and changes in immigration law, and learn how to focus on clients' other needs, such as linking them to community resources. "They're teaching us how to not just approach the client as a case, to see them as a complete person," Oberembt said. And, realizing burnout is common, the center also requires fellows -- and hosts like Memphis -- to be active participants in a network that offers ongoing professional guidance and moral support. For instance, fellows will have the cellphone numbers of Rapping and other top experts in the field. "It's almost like a family," Rapping said. "I don't call it a program and I don't call it training," Rapping said. "We're building a movement."
Some, including Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Josh Spickler, call it an army. "He's hoping to take the system by storm," Spickler said of Rapping. Oberembt said she never thought of pursuing a lucrative career in corporate law and was instead compelled to aid the downtrodden. "That was never even a question for me," she said. "I think it's hard for some people to understand. I always felt really strongly about the way states treat people who are genuinely disadvantaged."
Oberembt, a St. Louis native, said she chose Memphis because the need seemed great and Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush showed a commitment to the addressing the need. That's evident from his often recited motto: "Justice doesn't start in the courtroom. It starts in the community."
Spickler said he remembers a client who had traveled the world while in the Navy, but later ended up addicted to crack and living on the streets of Memphis. The man's life changed after he was convicted of a second DUI, legally triggering the option of a 28-day stay at an in-patient treatment facility. The veteran embraced his sobriety, landed a job, bought a house and car and eventually became a supervisor overseeing 17 employees. Sober for more than a decade, the man has paid off old debt, including back child support. "He exemplifies what we need to become," Spickler said.
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