With increasing national attention on criminal justice reform, Just City, a new non-profit, launched this year in Shelby County to help advocate for the Public Defender's Office and the clients they serve.
The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office has about 80 attorneys who handle some 35,000 cases per year.
To Josh Spickler, it’s a caseload that is unimaginable. As a criminal defense attorney for more than 15 years, including two stints in the Public Defender’s Office, he knows the workload first hand.
In his new role as Executive Director of Just City Inc.
, he wants to help shape a better future for the criminal justice system in support of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.
Josh Spickler, Executive Director of Just City
Just City was born out of a need of the Public Defender’s Office to have a private partner to advocate for work they do and help reform the system while providing some of the resources that help the office better fulfill its mission of defending rights.
“Just City was built on the premise that it will serve clients, advocate for better treatment of those clients and help reform the system those clients are stuck in,” Spickler said. “Many of our attorneys will close 1,000 cases in a year. These workloads are barely imaginable and are certainly not constitutional. Believe it or not, Shelby County has it better than a lot of places, but we are still laboring under workloads that often make it impossible for the attorneys and staff to give each client the attention he or she deserves and has a right to under the Constitution.”
The three pillars of Just City are to serve, reform and advocate.
The idea has been a few years in the works, and started in full this year thanks to funding that will see it through for the next year.
As Principal at Key Public Strategies, Kerry Hayes does public policy and communications consulting for city builders. While working in Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration a few years back, he developed a friendship with Spickler, who worked with Stephen Bush, the chief public defender for Shelby County. Along with Lurene Kelley, Special Assistant for Organizational Communication at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, they began talking about things they wish the office could have.
“Our wheels collectively turned,” Hayes said. “We started to imagine what it would be like if the Public Defender had an outside partner that could be outspoken in advocating for things that the office couldn’t do. Over the course of four years we gradually had conversations and realized it was as simple as founding a new 501c3 organization and identify some funding.”
Hayes works with the organization as a consultant. Spickler recently was hired as its first Executive Director. Allison Gibbs was hired in June as Program Manager.
Just City’s clients largely are the same ones served by the Public Defender’s Office; the main difference is that the attorneys are tasked with representation within the courts of Shelby County, Spickler said. And those clients work under the consequences of contact with the courts for months and even years after their cases are disposed.
Where Just City can help is by addressing barriers that arise because of that contact, issues like expungement and driver’s license suspensions that require the help of an attorney to overcome.
Just City’s reform work will kick into action in January when the Tennessee General Assembly’s session begins in Nashville. There have been funding cuts public defenders have been fighting, and talks of reforming the criminal justice system are ongoing.
Often, there isn’t a voice in Nashville for people who are affected by those law changes, Spickler said. Just City’s team expects a busy, but short, legislative session when it comes to criminal justice reform.
“We’ve begun to build those relationships but have a long road to go,” Spickler said. “We will be prepared to address any challenges to the current funding mechanisms that support the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. We will also be ready to respond to any proposed legislation that we think will further damage communities already laboring under harsh and unnecessarily punitive criminal justice policies.”
The movement Just City is part of is gaining support throughout the community. There is a rising tide of more people who are interested in the criminal justice system and ways to get involved in finding better outcomes, Hayes said.
“More people who don’t identify as criminal justice experts realize this is a linchpin in high-poverty communities like Memphis,” Hayes said. “Just City sprang out of that. People need a place they can go and learn about ways they can help shape it. We hear that all the time.”
And in an increasing number, allies from across Shelby County are joining the cause. It’s a cross-section of the community, everyone from the far left to the far right. It’s an essential community buy in.
“We’re trying to reshape a culture of thought of treatment of low-income individuals,” Hayes said. “We need to demand something very specific. Much more often it’s forming a world view that will shape how people treat people of a different race or view. It doesn’t fall into the quote-unquote advocacy realm. Getting more people involved in the conversation and arming them, even if gradually, with new mindsets to think about those works.”
Some programs that Just City will help take to the next level in Shelby County include the Clean Slate Fund. Just City helps the Public Defender’s Office pay for people’s expungements, which cost $450 and can be a difficult expense for many coming out of the criminal justice system. A recent $5,000 grant from the Memphis Bar Foundation helps Just City write checks for referrals that come from the Public Defender’s Office.
On Nov. 10, Just City hosted an evening of storytelling and people sharing experiences at Advance Memphis. The event explored how the community corrects and restores those who come in contact with the criminal justice system. It’s the second such event the organization has held.
Just City also works to show the impact the criminal justice system has on economic development in the community. Spickler said the time is right for this conversation.
“We’ve long discussed from one side, and that’s law enforcement,” he said. “It’s a tsunami of voices across the country speaking loudly that ways we’ve done this for 30 years in criminal justice doesn’t work. Part of it is recognizing dignity of that person coming through the system and help them get back on their feet.”