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Gideon Real Stories Project: Massive Caseloads in Memphis, Tennessee

Sarah Solon,
Communications Strategist,
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March 18, 2013

We have all heard cops in Hollywood assure suspects that if they cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for them. But is this promise actually fulfilled for people in the real world? This blog series presents the real stories about the state of indigent defense fifty years after the right was first recognized in Gideon v. Wainwright.


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Benjamin Rush, Jr. is a public defender in Memphis, Tennessee. Lawyers in his Shelby County office have caseloads that are three to four times larger than the national average, and Rush reports that he is often able to spend only minutes with his clients before they enter the courtroom. Not only are public defenders in Shelby County strapped for time and resources, but, according to Rush, “we face problems that regular criminal justice attorneys don’t face – and that’s poverty.”

Many of Rush’s clients cannot afford to bond out of jail while they wait for trial. Fighting a case, then, would mean time spent sitting in a cell, missing work and time with one’s kids. Faced with this choice, Rush reports that many clients accept a time served offer in exchange for a guilty plea because they are “willing to settle the case for anything.”

For Rush, this flawed incentive structure is upsetting:

When you really care about your clients and you see them pleading to things they should not be pleading to, it bothers you, and it’s something you have to deal with personally.

In this podcast, Rush describes some of the problems he sees with indigent defense in Shelby County, fifty years after Gideon v. Wainwright guaranteed legal representation regardless of one’s ability to pay. Today, the ACLU begins a year of stories about the state of indigent defense following the 50th anniversary of Gideon. To begin this series, the ACLU is happy to spotlight Rush, as he is exactly the type of dedicated, competent and zealous advocate indigent defendants deserve.

Listen to Benjamin Rush on our Gideon podcast.

Stay tuned over the next year as we share more stories about the current state of indigent defense, fifty years after Gideon v. Wainwright.

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