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Juvenile Defense Reform in Shelby County Draws National Attention


cities in the country; our college graduation rates, among the low- est. We are often cited as one the most violent, unhealthy cities in the U.S.

L Te legitimacy of these rankings can be disputed. But even if

there is only partial truth to these numbers, the cracks in our com- munity cut jagged and wide. Tese troubling distinctions make us shake our heads, lock

our doors … worry. And we are right to worry. Particularly when you consider the confluence of these negative factors with one of our greatest assets – our children. According to the Urban Child Institute, 48,000 children under the age of 5 live in Memphis. Tat’s thousands of children, enough to fill a small town, who will be shaped by the family, community and conditions that surround them. For many of these children, that future looks bleak. A recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that for the first time since the Great Recession of 2008, the childhood poverty rate in the U.S. did not increase, holding at 23%. But it’s another story in Memphis where that rate is rising. In fact, four out of every ten children in Memphis live in unrelenting poverty. Tat’s nearly twice the national average. Children growing up in poverty are not predisposed to crimi-

nal behavior, but they are significantly more likely to experience violence and psychological trauma than other children. According to the 2012 Defending Childhood report commissioned by the Department of Justice, nearly every child who comes into contact with the criminal justice system in this country has been exposed to the trauma of violence. “It’s time we stop seeing young people in the juvenile justice

system as simply aggressors, but as children who have also sur- vived violence and trauma in their own lives,” says Shelby County’s Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush.

CHILDREN ARE JUST DIFFERENT For the first time in more than 30 years, the Public Defender’s Office is charged with creating a specialized public defender unit for Shelby County children. Te chief defender, Stephen Bush, has 20-years experience in public defense. He is a national expert in jail diversion strategies for those with serious and persistent men- tal illness. Te public defender’s Jericho Project has successfully cut recidivism in half among clients with mental illness. Bush’s knowledge of the adult criminal justice system runs deep. But in the last year, he has been required to also become a student of the juvenile system. He has met with national leaders in juvenile justice reform, studied juvenile defense across the country


ook at the national headlines. It’s no secret that Shelby County has its share of highly publicized challenges. Our largest city, Memphis, is one of the most impoverished big

and met regularly with local leaders in the court, county govern- ment and the community. He’s come to understand that Memphis is part of a national movement to dramatically shift the way that we, as a country, approach juvenile justice. “We know a lot more today about what’s going on in the de-

veloping brains of children than we knew 30 years ago. Te way we approach juvenile justice in Memphis and across the country must catch up with this knowledge,” says Bush. “Tis means we must understand that the brain development and, therefore, decision- making, of many children involved in delinquency matters has been severely diminished by poor living conditions, violence, and abuse in their homes or neighborhoods.” Advancing the way our justice systems interacts with adoles- cents is critical; once a child walks through the doors of a juve- nile court, the odds increase significantly that he will grow into an adult in the criminal justice system. According to Bush, “this cycle affects us all. We’ve got to find a way to interrupt it.”

CHANGE UNDER THE NATIONAL MICROSCOPE In April of 2012, the national spotlight was directed at Shelby County in a way no community wants. Tat’s when the DOJ re- leased a scathing 68-page report finding Shelby County Juvenile Court systematically violated the due process rights of children and failed to offer equal protection to African-Americans. After six months of negotiations, the DOJ and the Court

came to an agreement designed to transform the system and avoid a potentially long and expensive lawsuit. Tis marked the first time the DOJ had moved against a juvenile court system, calling na- tional attention to Shelby County -- and its response. “Because of the bright light shone on Shelby, there is a greater

national awareness of the system issues in juvenile justice,” says Pat- ti Puritz, head of the National Juvenile Defense Center (NJDC), arguably the most respected voice in national juvenile defense re- form.

Last year, Puritz and her team flew from D.C. to Memphis to meet with members of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Of- fice, the Shelby County Juvenile Court and other local leaders. “Other states and jurisdictions are looking at how these is-

sues are managed in Shelby and will assuredly take away lessons learned,” says Puritz. “Tere is an opportunity to replicate good reforms that come out of Shelby, nationally. In addition, states or jurisdictions with similar issues to pre-MOA Shelby, who have not yet come under the scrutiny of the DOJ, will undoubtedly consid- er changes to preempt such national attention focused on them.” Josh Dohan is one of those people paying close attention.

“Stephen Bush is a man known for his vision. Te leaders of juve- nile and criminal justice systems all over the country are watching Shelby County,” says Dohan, a national leader in the field of juve- nile defense reform.

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