CHATTANOOGA (WDEF) – Public defenders represent those accused of a crime who are unable to afford legal assistance. Often accused of heinous, high-profile crimes, our country offers defendants a unique opportunity to speak out.
“All people, even people who can’t afford it, have the right, the constitutional right, to be represented when they are accused of crimes,” says Chelsea Curtis, Deputy Executive Director of the Tennessee Public Defenders Conference. “That’s a pillar of the American constitution.”
It’s this higher purpose that public defenders say motivates them despite lower pay than private sector attorneys.
“That client needs to have the kinds of advice that a wealthy person would have, or that a middle class person would have,” says Hamilton County Public Defender Steve Smith. “The system only works when every part of it works.”
Steve Smith was elected President of the Tennessee Public Defenders Conference in Chattanooga this week, a role he will serve for one year. The conference is comprised of defenders from all 31 districts in the state.
“He’s been around for long enough to understand what we do,” says Curtis. “He’s passionate about it but he’s also new enough where he’s got some new ideas for us. Steve is very involved with the legislature and we’re hoping that we can get some more resources.”
Smith will work with legislators on policy decisions. There are 20 assistant public defenders that serve under Smith in Hamilton County. Tennessee and Florida are the only states in the country that elect public defenders. The term lasts for eight years.