Opinion » Viewpoint

Deforming Tennessee Justice

Governor Haslam’s task force on sentencing is heavy on whites and prosecutors and scanty on minorities and defense lawyers.


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A Tennessee "country lawyer" named Andrew Jackson founded the Democratic Party. An Illinois "prairie lawyer" named Abraham Lincoln founded the Republican Party. Both represented people charged with violent crimes. Jackson allegedly committed a few of his own in his early years, and Lincoln was defending people charged with murder, right up to the time of his run for the presidency.  

Lincoln's memorial now stands on our national mall in Washington, D.C., as both a tribute to justice and the most visible platform for those seeking fairness to peaceably assemble. Many of our founding fathers were defense attorneys. John Adams even defended the British soldiers at the Boston massacre. But today, the voices of private criminal defense lawyers are not wanted nor welcomed by the state government in Nashville. Somehow, American heroes like Thurgood Marshall and the fictional Atticus Finch are no longer valued as part of American culture.

Last week, Governor Bill Haslam formed a 27-member task force to reform sentencing laws in Tennessee. The goal is a noble one, as nearly every study of prisons reveals that the United States has 5 percent of the world's population, but more than 25 percent of the world's prison population. Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, demonstrate the anger that many citizens have at a government that is over militarized and increasingly appears to be waging war on its own people. 

Citizens of Tennessee can likely expect more of the same from the sentencing task force. The commission counts numerous prosecutors, judges, and police chiefs among its membership, and gives the appearance of being well rounded. However, the task force lacks even one private criminal defense lawyer among its members. In fact, the governor appointed only one recently reelected public defender to the task force. In other words, almost no one charged with "reforming" sentencing in a draconian justice system has ever defended a citizen at a sentencing hearing.  

The act of standing alone with a single citizen as the overwhelming weight of our government crushes his liberty is an experience that almost no one on the task force understands. The government will reform itself largely on the advice of its own employees, and without the advice of those independent thinkers who exist outside of government — like the lawyers who founded our country.

Six Shelby County residents were appointed to the task force. All are white Republicans, now tasked with reforming a system that overwhelmingly affects people of color. But, more importantly, none have defended a sentencing hearing since these laws were created in 1994.  

Senator Brian Kelsey is a lawyer who has never argued a case in criminal court. Sheriff Bill Oldham is not a lawyer, but his son serves as a prosecutor in the criminal courts. His predecessor in the Sheriff's Office is Mark Luttrell, our current county mayor, who never argued a criminal case. Bill Gibbons is the current director of Tennessee's Department of Homeland Security, a law enforcement position. As a lawyer, he served as our district attorney in an administrative capacity and never argued a criminal case.  

Amy Weirich is one of the most accomplished trial attorneys in the history of Shelby County, but has served only in the role of prosecutor. The Honorable John Campbell is equally accomplished as a trial lawyer, having served as a prosecutor from 1986 until he took the bench in 2012. A notable local lawyer who differs from all others on the committee in both appearance and work history but was not selected is Memphis Mayor A C Wharton.

I know several of these citizens, but my affection for them does not change the fact that each of them presents only one side of the debate about sentencing in Shelby County. For example, our laws send people to prison for six years for possessing $40 worth of marijuana, an act that is no longer a crime in several states. Possessing just $10 of cocaine can lead to a 30-year sentence.  

The elected officials of the task force all promise to be "tough" on crime. None ran advertisements promising to be "fair" or "smart" on crime. But the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is that families in Shelby County are destroyed by many of our sentencing laws. How can a commission this one-sided and completely lacking in practical perspective make any meaningful reform? 

The task force should remember the words of Lincoln: "A law may be both constitutional and expedient, and yet may be administered in an unjust and unfair way." It would be even better for Tennessee if the task force had members who actually live and work as Lincoln did — to remind the group in person.

Mike Working is the owner of The Working Law Firm, and serves as a member of the board of directors for the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

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