With 21 public defender vacancies in Shelby County, chief pleads for more funding

By: - May 19, 2022 6:00 am
Shelby County Courthouse. (Photo: ShelbyCounty.gov)

Shelby County Courthouse. (Photo: ShelbyCounty.gov)

Shelby County’s Public Defender’s Office struggles to hire and retain staff because experienced attorneys working as public defenders make far less than most attorneys in the state, said Chief Public Defender Phyllis Aluko on Wednesday.

During the Shelby County Budget and Finance Committee, Aluko requested $138,000 to hire an investigator and to cover other costs but later added that the department currently has 21 vacant attorney positions, along with five investigator positions and three secretary positions.

Aluko blamed pay inequities, since many county public defenders are paid below the minimum for their experience level on the county’s current pay scale. In comparison, a state public defender with 25-year experience will make about $30,000 more than a Shelby County public defender with the same experience, she said

“You see how a state public defender, one who might work in a much smaller jurisdiction with fewer cases than the attorneys in our jurisdiction have, ends up being paid a lot more,” said Aluko. 

Phyllis Aluko, Shelby County Chief Public Defender. Photo: Shelby County Public Defender’s office

Along with difficulties retaining and recruiting staff, Shelby County also has elevated training costs due to higher than necessary staff turnover.

To highlight the importance of public defenders, Aluko recounted a case in which a client initially charged with first-degree murder was ultimately found innocent. The client had mistakenly been identified by two witnesses several months after the victim was killed and as a result was jailed for nearly a year on a bond that was “too high,” she said.

Public defenders found that the client had a credible alibi and that DNA and phone records pointed to someone else. The client was then released on a reduced bond and the case was dismissed. 

“We are essentially the watchdogs of the system. We ensure that those who are not guilty are not convicted,” said Aluko. 

But due to longstanding pay inequities, the county trains public defenders, who then leave after receiving some experience because “they can go to any other judicial district in Tennessee and make far more money,” she added.  

Shelby County commissioners asked whether Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris included funding for public defenders, and Budget Director Michael Thompson said the Public Defender’s office will receive a portion of $500,000 allocated to the Shelby County District Attorney.

Aluko’s request is separate, but she said a fully-staffed Public Defender’s Office would require $1.9 million, an amount based on matching the state pay scale for public defenders. 

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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.

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