Questions Raised About Criminal Justice System

By Bill Dries

Shelby County’s public defender and the head of the Shelby County Corrections division say courts and prisons are changing and evolving as views about crime and punishment begin to change.


But Public Defender Stephen Bush and County Corrections Division director James Coleman said the intervention needs to start before citizens come into contact with the criminal justice system.


“The prison system is probably the worst place to engage people when you are struggling with other life issues,” Bush said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “While it’s admirable and good that the justice system creates programs and aspires to rehabilitate and address whatever the life issues that are going on … it may be the worst place to try to tackle that problem.”

“We have a wonderful parenting program in the institution. But how many parenting programs are offered to the community?” added Coleman, who ran the Shelby County Jail for nine years before becoming director of the division that includes the Shelby County Corrections Center for the last three. “We can prepare them. We can take them to a hand-off level. … It’s almost as if we have decided that once they walk out of our gates they are fixed. They are not.”

The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, is the second in a series of interviews and discussions reacting to changes in federal prosecution guidelines announced last month by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich and U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee Ed Stanton were on the previous program.

Both programs can be seen at The Daily News Video page at

Holder announced that federal prosecutors will be making different decisions about how to pursue cases that move away from mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses especially those involving drug use. He also called for better funding of state and local public defender offices.

“What the attorney general is talking about signals a significant shift in policy and attention to some very large issues affecting the country,” Bush said. “Mass incarceration and the unsustainable burden of what’s hit our prison system not just nationally but in Tennessee will begin to affect policy and practice in the local criminal justice system. I think that’s yet to be seen.”

Coleman questions whether prisons still work as a deterrent when so many behind bars are already isolated before incarceration, see friends in prison and see no stigma attached to being a convict.

“Our society has changed,” he said. “Right now the most known address in Shelby County is 201 Poplar. When you say the penal farm, everybody knows. … We have glamorized going to jail. For a lot of inner-city kids – a lot of minorities – going to jail doesn’t have that impact it once did. That stigma is no longer there.”

Bush has a staff of 78 defenders who handle the cases of 40,000 individuals a year with an annual budget of $10 million. The cases range from driving on a suspended license to capital murder.

“The volume that’s coming through the system is incredible. … We should look thoughtfully at the legislative level at what we can do. We could lop 20 percent to a third of the volume off the low end of the criminal justice system if we could find something other to do with people who have driving offenses – other than to arrest, charge them and bring them into the system,” he said. “It’s driving while your license is suspended and revoked because you didn’t pay a speeding ticket a while back.”

It’s a change that could let Bush spend government dollars on more urgent cases. But Bush argued the cost to the government isn’t the central issue in the re-examination of crime and punishment.

“It’s not what you pay for public defense that is so expensive. It’s not what you pay to house somebody, even though that is an extraordinary amount of money on the front end,” he said, citing Coleman’s budget of $60 million and more than $100 million to operate the Shelby County Jail each year. “It’s ultimately the economic impact on that individual and their future and perhaps for the community.”