"Part of my job is to look beyond the label and see the individual. Crimes are mistakes that people make. That doesn’t mean they are incapable of being helped." Quan Poole is an assistant public defender for Shelby County. In his daily work he helps clients maintain dignity, even in their moments of need.
Mary is one of the most resilient people I have ever met.
The youngest of nine children, she watched her family disappear. Five of her siblings were placed in DCS custody because of her mom’s drug addiction. Three died before the age of fifteen. That left Mary, who almost disappeared before she was born.
While pregnant, Mary’s mom drank turpentine in an attempt to abort her. At age three, she was diagnosed with lead poisoning. Impoverished and often unsupervised, she had eaten paint chips that carried the dangerous toxin. Though tragic, Mary’s story is all too common in Memphis. What opportunity did she ever have to succeed?
Those are questions I have to answer every day. People ask me: “How can you represent Mary?”
I could tell them about the constitution, about protecting liberties or checking government overreach. But the truth is, I need to tell Mary’s story. She had been a voiceless cog, transitioning through the system, waiting for someone to fight for her. The system failed her, and then it sought to cage her.
Too often we choose not to see the humanity of people in the criminal justice system. Instead, they are “criminals.” But what does that word mean? We may know someone who has taken things that didn’t belong to them. Many of us have friends who have picked up a DUI or run afoul of the law. But we don’t view them as somehow “lesser” or unworthy of help. They are our friends, not criminals.
Part of my job is to look beyond the label and see the individual. Crimes are mistakes that people make. That doesn’t mean they are incapable of being helped. At its core, being a criminal defense attorney is about representing people at their time of greatest need.
And—believe it or not—there is no better place to do this work than Memphis. In our beautiful city there lives an ugly reality: more than twenty percent of residents live below the poverty line. Incarceration rates are higher than the national average. It can be a tough town for people who don’t have resources, and that toughness can lead to mistakes.
At the Shelby County public defender’s office, our 80+ lawyers, handling 35,000 cases, try to look at the whole person, not just the crime, and take necessary steps prevent future entry into the system. It’s called holistic representation, and it’s built on the idea that most of life takes place outside the courtroom, far away from the crime scene. When working through a case, I try to determine, what life circumstances led this person to enter the criminal justice system in the first place? And I’m not alone.
Take Stephen Bush, Shelby County’s chief public defender. Last year, his office was recognized as one of the top innovators in criminal justice by the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. Through a program he developed more than a decade ago, The Jericho Project, Shelby County connects incarcerated clients suffering from serious mental illness to community-based behavioral health services.
These services, which may include housing, medication, or employment, are offered at no cost to the client. The Jericho Project has cut the recidivism rate among this population in half. The Jericho Project is our greatest example of serving as a national model. It has served as a resource for Los Angeles County as it works to transform the way it addresses those hitting their system who are battling serious and persistent mental illness and addiction.
Through another program, Street Court, our office helped hundreds of low-income Memphians waive tens of thousands in old court debt. Removing this barrier allowed many to restore their suspended driver’s licenses – a critical need in a city with a struggling mass transit system.
Our office developed the Clean Slate program, which pays the $450 fee charged for expungements – one of the highest in the country. It was started with a grant from the Memphis Bar Foundation and since then, the new criminal justice reform group Just City has taken in the Clean Slate fund, handling the paperwork, raising thousands in donations and paying the fees for fifty expungements.
You ask me, “How can you represent Mary?” I ask you, “How can I not?” My clients live on the margins of society. What I’ve learned is that this means they have so much to teach me about grit and survival. It also means my clients have so much to teach us all about what it means to show mercy, because ultimately, we must all grapple with the reality that in many cases, the only crime they have committed is being born poor.
Quan Poole is a New Memphis Embark graduate pushing our city forward. Learn more at newmemphis.org.