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Being a Public Defender in Your Own Role

Community Impact

January 18, 2019

In early January, CNM welcomed Metropolitan Nashville’s newly elected Chief Public Defender Martesha L. Johnson to discuss her vision for the Nashville Defenders, new initiatives and opportunities for advocacy, powerful narratives, and being a collective voice of public defenders in our respective roles in the community.

The Mission of the Metropolitan Public Defender’s Office is “to defend the liberty, honor, and constitutional rights of the individuals, of all ages, whose cases have been entrusted to us.” They strive to be advocates for their clients, standing with them in their communities and working toward a just, fair, and compassionate legal system. The Public Defenders work to meet this mission by focusing on their three core values: client-centered representation, excellent and innovative advocacy, and community empowerment and systemic engagement. Working together for a better legal system that promotes justice in process and outcome requires collaboration from our community and “people in the community who understand that justice is not as compartmentalized as we’d like to make it.”

Martesha and her office recognize that an individual’s story is far more than a warrant, and solving the resource and systemic problems that people face takes more than just the court room. While constricted in the individuals they are able to serve by federal poverty guidelines, the Public Defenders focus on advocacy for all clients, considering important factors in their cases such as an individual’s mental health history. Martesha articulates that in most cases, there is something driving the “why” behind the warrant, making advocacy and access to resources imperative.

Working with Nonprofits

The end of Martesha’s formal presentation left many participants asking the question, “What support is most helpful from us, as nonprofit leaders?”  Martesha stressed two main visions that she has for working collectively with the nonprofit sector, a court watch program and a network of experts.

Court watch is a program that is already implemented in many cities and is dedicated to informing the public about court processes and decisions. Beginning a court watch program in Nashville would require few resources, as Dawn Deaner’s Choosing Justice Initiative (CJA) is likely to spear head the program. The program would require volunteers, coordinators, individuals to write the findings in reports, and ties to the media. Martesha sees this as an important way to open the courts to the community, stressing that those participating would be able to watch for commonalities and trends in court processions. For example, it would bring light to those who are wearing orange, and how those who are wearing orange are treated differently than those who can afford not be in jumpsuits. In addition, the racial disparity in court would be highlighted. While the 50/50 breakdown of whites and blacks in court gives off the appearance of equality, the true racial breakdown of Nashville with only 24% of the population being black adds an eye opening layer to this narrative.

Martesha also commented on the benefit of a roster of experts from the nonprofit sector. This list would not only be called on during court cases, but used for continuous connection and mutual updates on the work done in the Public Defender’s office and nonprofits serving their client community. This is especially important because many of their clients do not have family and friends as advocates. Experts on topics such as mental health and ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) would help provide clients with much needed advocates and aid in humanizing cases. In addition, this list of experts could help to shift the focus to proactive rather than reactive assistance. Workshops lead by experts to organizations such as the DA Office would provide insight into new ways of thinking about a case before the accused even steps in the court room. Everyone in this community specializes in something different that has the potential to show that “cages will not change the behavior, cages will not keep the community safe.

Martesha’s Perspective

Another initiative that Martesha championed was Creating Avenues for Restoration and Empowerment (CARE) court, a diversion initiative created by Judge Rachel Bell. Other cities have similar programs that allow young adults ages 18-25 to have their record cleared after participating in the program. To receive record expungement, this 11 month 29 day program would provide education and support for job readiness. While still in the works, the District Attorney may allow this diversion for small charges such as simple theft and possession of marijuana.

When asked about the one policy change Martesha would make given the chance, she quickly responded with the elimination of money bail. Money bail has created a wealth-based detention system that centers justice on wealth and suggests that money equals protection. Our justice system claims to presume everyone innocent until proven guilty, but how can one feel they are presumed innocent when a jail is holding them and the pressures of losing everything are rising? For someone who cannot afford bail, one day in jail could mean everything. It could mean losing your job, apartment, or leaving your kids with no caretaker. Money bail leads to individuals pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit to get out of jail as fast as possible. In its replacement, a pre-trial risk assessment should be performed to determine bail, as the only conversation surrounding an individual’s bail should be their likelihood of returning to court. This would include metrics such as an individual’s previous criminal record, the number of times they have missed court, and their ties to the community.

Martesha also provided the attendees with knowledge on topics of interest such as the difference between court appointed attorneys and Nashville defenders, diversion and specialty courts, and criminal trespass cases which many people who are homeless face. Court appointed attorneys take cases that the Public Defender’s office is unable to due to federal restrictions and conflicts of interest. These attorneys receive very little money to represent their cases and no mentoring or oversight. Martesha also combatted misconceptions of diversion and specialty courts, articulating that these are often a method of punishment guised as a good thing as they provide sanctions for normal experiences in healing processes. For example, healing from addiction very rarely occurs without relapse, which is sanctioned in these courts. In addition, Martesha presented the narrative of people who are experiencing homelessness and criminal trespass cases as a revolving door of people, sometimes with individuals asking to stay in jail for 2-3 days more in the winter because they have nowhere to go.  These narratives were powerful in displaying the resource problem that our community faces. More than a resource problem, however, we have an allocation problem. Nashville has the resources to attract 100 new people a day, but is not investing in the people who are already here.

Get Involved

By the end of the conversation we circled back to the beginning sentiment: what is the most important thing the nonprofit sector can do to help? Create a collective voice that mandates a change in the criminal justice system. This is best done at the ballot box and incorporating these narratives into every day communication. Without a powerful, collective voice, Martesha’s call for justice will be overpowered. Martesha emphasized that the players in the room should, “consider being a public defender in your respective roles.

To connect with the Public Defender’s office contact publicdefender@jis.nashville.org. Emily Herbert works with client advocates and helps to connect clients with community resources.

To learn more about Collective Impact and working collaboratively to make systems change check out CNM’s upcoming Collective Impact Workshop “Implementing Equity Frameworks: Creating Systemic Change” on April 25th, find a workshop that interests you here, or contact our Director of Collective Impact Meg Morgan at meg@cnm.org.