The government is too big. It has never been bigger-by any measure. It spends more money than any other single actor in our society. From blue rhinos to providing telecommunications services, our government knows no bounds. We’ve gone from a free enterprise system to a public enterprise system.

I’m not an artist. I’m not terribly tech-savvy. The part of government that I know most about is the criminal justice system. I’ve been a witness. I’ve been a victim. I’ve been a defendant. I’ve been a defense attorney. I’ve been a prosecutor. Now, I’m the public defender in Hamilton County, charged with providing legal counsel to poor people-and there are a lot of poor people. They can’t spend the kind of money on their cases that the government can spend on blue rhinos.

If you’ve ever spent any time sitting in a courtroom as a victim, a witness or a defendant, I’ll bet you wonder where all the money goes. People are wall to wall. The carpet is worn thin. The chairs are threadbare. One or two prosecutors are in charge of 50 cases. Police officers file in and out, impatient to get back to the traffic accidents and paperwork that their jobs require. Judges are waiting on defense lawyers. Business owners unlucky enough to get subpoenaed are checking in with their offices on their cellphones and hoping they don’t get caught by the bailiffs.

And a few legislators want witnesses to wait longer. They want victims to have even less time with prosecutors. They want police to do even more with less. And they certainly don’t give a damn about poor defendants. But I do.


You see, some of these poor defendants are battered women who’ve finally decided to fight back and got arrested for it. Some of these defendants are public school teachers who had to put their hands on classroom punks brawling on the floor. If someone says their precious kid was manhandled by a teacher, that teacher gets arrested-even if little Britni is 180 pounds, carries a box cutter and has been suspended numerous times for fighting.

And what do a handful of legislators want to do about it? Cut funding to public defenders? Why? Because big-city (Memphis and Nashville) prosecutors want them to? At least they are the only logical proponents of the current bill scheduled forTuesdayin the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Here is the background. The criminal code is a creature of the state Legislature. When county-funded sheriffs and city police enforce it, the state pays prosecutors to oversee the prosecutions. Under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, the state also pays for lawyers to represent poor people accused by law enforcement. Up until now, if a county wanted to hire additional state prosecutors and support staff to do more than Tennessee would fund, state law required that county to also fund 75 percent of the increase to benefit indigent defense.

Only a handful of counties do that, mostly urban counties. For instance, in Shelby County, just half the public defender’s budget comes from the state. The other half comes from Shelby County because of the large amount of resources that county gives to state law enforcement. We’re not talking about the millions given to the county sheriff or the Memphis police. The Shelby County public defender’s office is only half state-funded because Shelby County decides to give a gargantuan amount to its prosecutor over and above what the state provides to that state office.

And if a current bill in Sen. Gardenhire’s Senate Judiciary Committee passes the Legislature, Shelby County will be let off the hook for any responsibility to fund indigent defense. All of that responsibility will fall back to the state. And guess where the state gets its money-from all of us. Let’s let Shelby County pay for the bigger criminal justice system in Shelby County than the one we have chosen for ourselves here in Hamilton.

We have a fiscally conservative district attorney in Hamilton County. Likewise, as your new public defender, I’ve cut the operating part of my budget to the bone so I could put more lawyers in the courtroom. I want victims to have more time with prosecutors in Hamilton County. I want witnesses to spend less time in court. And I want poor people to have lawyers with enough time and talent to investigate and defend the cases brought against their clients.

Look, I agree we need to cut government spending. We need to cut taxes to promote the economy. But there are aspects of government that are fundamental. Those functions may not be as sexy as blue rhinos and gigabit Internet services, but they make sure guilty people are punished and innocent people are freed. Heck, if the public wants lawyers to sit on a plywood floor in the courtroom, that is one thing. But if you start taking away people’s criminal justice rights protected by the Sixth Amendment, all that the poor will have left is the Second Amendment.

Prosecutors need more resources, especially the prosecutors in urban areas. I know because I used to be one. But tell Sen. Gardenhire not to allow Shelby County and Davidson County to rob Peter to pay Paul. If a county wants to get in the prosecution business, great. Just realize that every person we choose to arrest for driving without the government’s permission, for every person we throw in the drunk tank at Riverbend and especially for every innocent battered woman who finally strikes out at her abusive husband-you’ve got to provide a public defender.

State Rep.Mike Carter(615-471-3025,[email protected]) and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire (615-471-6682, [email protected]), both good men, are from our area and serve on their respective judiciary committees. Tell them to fight to make sure Shelby and Davidson pay their own way. And so should we. Foisting our responsibilities onto others is no way to run a government. At least that’s not how I run the public defender’s office.

Steve Smith
District public defender

The opinions expressed in this op-ed belong solely to the author, not or its employees.