An Interview with Shelby County Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush - Articles

All Content

Posted by: Christy Gibson on Feb 25, 2013

by Linda Seely

         Last April, the United States Department of Justice issued a report citing the Shelby County Juvenile Court with a number of systemic problems, particularly as they relate to the administration of Juvenile Justice. In the process of issuing this report, the US-DOJ also pointed out that “you could remove the name ‘Shelby’ from this report and substitute in any number of other jurisdictions. These problems are not solely a problem of Shelby County, Tennessee, but occur all across Tennessee, all across the nation”, to quote lead investigator Tom Perez.  As Shelby County moves to implement changes to comply with the report requirements, other jurisdictions in Tennessee are watching, and waiting, to see what happens.  Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush sat down with me recently to offer us a glimpse into the ongoing process.

         According to Bush, what is happening in Shelby County is just the latest of a sweeping reform movement that began fifteen years ago.  Many of these reforms stem from an ABA Juvenile Justice Study -  A Call for Justice- first issued in 1995 and updated and reissued in 2000. A Call for Justice outlines a series of recommendations for enhancing the quality of representation in delinquency proceedings. The proposed reforms have been adopted by the Department of Justice and resulted in a wave of reforms where DOJ has stepped up efforts to enforce the rights of juveniles. How a child is treated or dealt with in the context of juvenile proceedings can, according to Bush, impact significantly whether the child continues in school or joins the school-to-prison pipeline.  And right now, says Bush, everyone in the justice community is watching what is being done in Memphis. Memphis and Shelby County, he believes, serve as the model for the nation as the court system recreates processes from the ground up, with the Court working in conjunction with the Department of Justice to implement the remedial agreement resulting from the investigation.

         While there are many proposed reforms in the agreement, none is more significant than the role played by defense counsel in Juvenile Justice proceedings.  Historically the role of counsel to a juvenile has consisted of a few attorneys who are overworked, underpaid, lack access to resources to either provide a meaningful defense or disposition, and who often aren’t appointed until moments before the trial, giving them little to no opportunity to develop a case or a defense. The remedial agreement between the Shelby County Juvenile Court and the Department of Justice addresses these concerns. Present efforts are focused on clarifying to the court and to Shelby County what needs to happen to meet the requirements to provide meaningful representation. 

         Bush goes on to point out that the Memphis community has nearly 50,000 children under the age of 5. For their sakes - and these are the children who will be most affected by the proposals required by the remedial agreement - we need to get juvenile justice right.  Part of the process requires gearing reforms to what we have learned about brain development in children and adolescents. This research and the proposed reforms are purposely designed to increase successful interventions. The whole community, says Bush, benefits when a child who is bucking up against the system has a chance to return to school, graduate and become a contributing member of society. Those who are taking a role in the ongoing development of interventions should bear in mind that many of the children who end up in the juvenile justice system are traumatized and in fact victims themselves, he reminds us.

         Bush points to some of the great resources in Memphis and across the nation that inform and drive the current reforms. “Everything the Urban Child Institute has initiated and their research on the impact of abuse and neglect on a child throughout life is relevant to development of appropriate interventions. The McArthur Foundation funds and the Defending the Childhood Initiative provide a base curriculum and provide research models for change and how we realign systems to adopt developmentally appropriate responses to offending.  We need to take seriously and adopt or adapt the things that work”.

         Memphis has every social ill facing a community in the United States.  Tennessee practitioners should be watching what is happening there. This is an opportunity for Memphis to be a pioneer in a way that is good for community.  Bush wants the Court, the County and the Department of Justice remedial agreement to provide a roadmap for others creating meaningful systems that will increase the number of kids returning to school versus those who continue along the trajectory to adult prison. Bush likes to think of the dollars spent on reform as a means of creating economic activity to the good versus the costs of incarceration. Not just the costs in dollars, which are significant, but the cost in human capital. 

         “Now is the time,” Bush says, “and we are the ones to spearhead this effort.”