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VOL. 133 | NO. 159 | Monday, August 13, 2018

Retiring Stephen Bush Supports DOJ Continuing to Monitor Juvenile Court

Special to The Daily News

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Stephen Bush

Stephen Bush, the chief public defender for Shelby County, said he supports the U.S. Department of Justice continued oversight over Juvenile Court, becoming the latest official to weigh in on the hotly debated issue.

“I think too much energy has been spent on trying to end the oversight instead of focusing on the work that still needs to be done,” Bush said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”

Bush differs from his boss, departing County Mayor Mark Luttrell, outgoing Sheriff Bill Oldham and Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael, who all asked the DOJ to stop the federal monitoring of the juvenile court system in Memphis.

In 2012, Shelby County government signed off on an agreement with the DOJ to overhaul Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court. Last year, Luttrell, Oldham and Michael sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying it was time to end the oversight. Their request is still pending, but the DOJ denied an earlier request to drop oversight of racial disparity and due process at juvenile court.

“I actually had a whole different view of the oversight. I found it to be useful and helpful,” Bush said during the 26-minute television show. “I hope the Department of Justice doesn’t step out right now and that oversight continues because that will keep the work important to this next generation of leaders and we haven’t finished the task.”

In addition to juvenile justice issues, Bush said county leaders need to pay close attention to the jail population at 201 Poplar.

“I would say the jail population is the priority issue for the incoming mayor-elect to the incoming sheriff (Floyd Bonner) and the new leadership on the board of commissioners,” Bush said. “While it (the jail population) may not be as high as it has been before, the trajectory of the last four to five years, this could be the all-consuming, most expensive problem facing new leadership, so it does need to be high priority as new administration comes in.”

He said bail reform also needs to be part of the conversation with county and city leaders.

“No one should be in the jail just because they’re too poor to post a low bond. Jail is where people are before they are tried and convicted or acquitted. Jail needs to be reserved for people who are too dangerous to be released,” he said.

Bush is focused on future leaders taking up the mantle of criminal justice reform issues because after more than two decades with the public defender’s office, he recently announced that he is retiring.

He will remain on the job until Shelby County Mayor-elect Lee Harris appoints his successor.

The 54-year-old Bush noted that he has done the work for half his life – 27 years. “There is a pretty good argument to be made that no one should do the work of public defense for that long,” he said, “so we’ve been looking forward to the transition for some time.”

He added, “I made this announcement of my plans to step down before the election, so the incoming mayor would have enough time and this would be a priority so we can get this selection right.”

For the last eight years, Bush has been at the helm of the public defender’s office that employs more than 140 defense attorneys and represents indigent defendants charged in criminal court cases.

He was appointed chief public defender in 2010 by Luttrell. He began his career with the office as an assistant public defender where he served for 19 years before he was chosen to head the agency.

“It’s been the honor of my life to serve as chief public defender, and I’m deeply grateful for Mayor Luttrell placing that trust in me,” Bush said.

When asked about the best moments of his career with the public defender’s office, he said: “you might think it is an acquittal, but there is something about being able to do this work for people who are in a very difficult spot. When they feel and know that they have been treated with dignity and respect, and have the right advice to make the right decisions whether it is a plea agreement or going to trial to see that unfold day after day, that’s what’s rewarding about this work.”

He admitted the caseload in his office is “still too high” with hundreds of misdemeanor and felony cases, but added that the work is “manageable” with the hard-working and dedicated attorneys in his office.

When he leaves office, Bush plans to take some time off.

“I have only made one commitment for after I step down, and that’s to my wife that I would take a sabbatical,” Bush said. “I grew up in a clergy family. My dad’s an Episcopal priest and every seven years we force our priest to go take a sabbatical and he would come back rested and rejuvenated and I am looking forward to that time.”

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