Lines of people awaiting criminal and general sessions court snake around the basement of 201 Poplar on Monday morning. All is fairly quiet until a petite woman sporting a retro beehive, false eyelashes, and a stack of papers turns the corner past the escalator.
"Good morning, babies!" shouts the cheerful Maurise McCraw, a volunteer with the public defender's office. "Does anyone need a job this morning? Need to pay the light bill? Or the mortgage?"
Bored expressions turn to smiles as defendants take the stapled papers from McCraw. Each morning, McCraw hands out hundreds of job listings compiled by assistant federal public defender David Bell. Bell creates the weekly list from local classifieds and job-finding websites to help defendants — many of whom are unskilled or uneducated — find work.
"When a person gets a job, there's a change in them," Bell says. "People who have never really had a steady job get trapped in a cycle, but when they find jobs, they seem to feel better about themselves. It's great for their family and the community."
Bell began creating the list when he worked in the Shelby County public defender's office in 2004. He's since moved to the federal public defender's office but continues to put together the list each week.
"I kept having clients tell me how hard a time they were having finding a job. Then one Sunday, I opened the classifieds to see what was out there for someone with a high school education or less," Bell says. "I made a little list for one of my clients, and then I started giving it to a few more clients."
Eventually, a general sessions judge took note of Bell's list and asked if she could have copies to hand out to defendants in court. These days, the list is distributed to numerous judges, the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, the Veterans Administration, local probation and parole offices, and several nonprofit agencies.
McCraw receives the list on Monday mornings from assistant Shelby County public defender Jennifer Case. McCraw makes copies and hands them out to "her babies," as she affectionately refers to courtroom defendants.
"Felons feel like they can't get jobs, but thanks to this list, a lot of my babies have gone to work," McCraw says.
Bell's list, typically about five pages long, includes jobs ranging from forklift operators and data-entry specialists to fast food employees and cashiers. It also includes a sample resume.
"One thing this list does is give people hope," says Robert Jones, Shelby County chief public defender. "Newspapers and the Internet can be overwhelming, but David looks for jobs that our clients would be able to do, like grass cutting or construction. It's a user-friendly list and it's not so intimidating."
Tough economic times have made Bell's project a bit harder, however. He says the number of jobs for unskilled workers has been cut in half.
"A lot more items on the jobs list are now part-time work," Bell says. "And when I'm looking for jobs, I see more and more of these scam work-from-home-type ads. I'd say we have 50 percent fewer jobs on the list than we did before 2008."
But that won't stop McCraw and the public defender's office from trying to help defendants find much-needed work.
"Unless we address some of the underlying problems, our clients will continue to come back into the [court] system," Jones says. "If they've got a job, they're less likely to come back."