The path of Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft to the bench has been the result of seeing possibilities in other positions.
He became a defense attorney in 1978 because his father had been a defense attorney.
“After three or four years of being a defense attorney, I was a little frustrated because a lot of times I felt like the prosecutors didn’t really care about my folks,” Craft said. “I thought if I were a prosecutor I would really have the power, I think, to do what was right. … I was a prosecutor for 12 years and toward the end of that time I was the senior trial prosecutor in the major violators unit. I was handling these big cases. A lot of times, I couldn’t get my cases tried because I felt like the judges needed to try a few more cases.”
So he applied in 1994 to become a Criminal Court judge and was appointed by then-Gov. Ned McWherter and won election that same year.
Craft is one of two recipients of the 2014 Dunavant Public Servant Awards to be given April 21 by the Rotary Club of Memphis East at the annual awards cosponsored by The Daily News and the University of Memphis.
The awards luncheon is at the Holiday Inn University of Memphis.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is the keynote speaker for the luncheon.
Each year one elected official and one non-elected official are selected by a committee of Rotarians and the family of the late Probate Court Clerk Bobby Dunavant for exemplifying the qualities that Dunavant brought to his public service, both as a non-elected public official and as an elected official later in his career.
Craft vividly remembers Dunavant taking him aside shortly after Craft began practicing and entered an order that “a judge just wrote all over.”
“He took me aside and talked to me about how to get it done right, which really impressed me,” Craft said. “I wasn’t used to people in the government being nice to me, especially in clerk’s offices.”
James Lewellen, the town administrator for the town of Collierville, is the non-elected official selected this year who will also be honored at the April 21 luncheon.
Craft is among the judicial incumbents on the ballot in August for re-election and he is running unopposed for another eight-year term in Shelby County Criminal Court.
He recently applied for a vacancy on the Tennessee Supreme Court.
“I think you always are looking at those above you and not saying they are doing a bad job, but wondering how you can do things better,” he said.
Craft sees his role, beyond the day-to-day administration of his court, as trying to influence a criminal justice system to not only be fair but reduce crime and handle cases with less expense for citizens and more efficiently.
“There are prosecutors that don’t understand that defense attorneys have to get paid. And they have to have certain information to advise their clients well,” he said. “Some of the defense attorneys have never been a prosecutor and they don’t understand the duties of the prosecutor. They don’t ever see the victims because they are always seeing the defendants.”
Craft also says that as an attorney he assumed that judges didn’t do too much once a case was decided or court recessed for the day.
“There’s a lot of writing and administrative work to be done,” he said. “If you don’t care about the people and feel for both sides, it’s really hard to be fair, I think. Sometimes you have days when there are people that you just find it really hard to care for. … But you just have to hang in there with those people to do a good job. It takes a lot of patience.”
In what he calls a “36-year journey,” Craft admits that his viewpoint has changed during that time.
“I used to feel very pessimistic for years about the criminal justice system. Every month it seems like I’m more encouraged that this problem is being solved in Memphis,” he said of efforts by the defense and prosecution to work with the accused as well as victims.
He is particularly encouraged by the work of faith-based organizations in working with both sets of citizens who come into the criminal justice system in need of “people-intensive” help.
“The faith-based organizations are there not because there’s money … but because they care about the people. If we could get people in government to care not just about the budgets or the money – but to care about the people first just like the faith-based organizations, then we can all work together,” Craft added. “If you hire somebody to monitor people, they are thinking about their check first and then the people. When you have volunteers that do it because they care about the people, it works a whole lot better.”