Defendants in Greene County criminal cases without the resources to hire an attorney often rely on a public defender to ensure they are represented in court.
This is where Todd Estep comes in. The experienced criminal defense attorney recently began an eight-year term as a public defender for the 3rd Judicial District after serving as an assistant public defender in the office since 2014.
Estep and his staff provide services in the four-county 3rd Judicial District, which includes Greene, Hancock, Hamblen and Hawkins counties. The district public defender’s office recently moved to a former legal office at 125 S. Main St. in Greeneville.
Estep, 47, was elected in August after winning the Republican primary in May. Former district public defender Greg Eichelman, who had held the position since 1989, did not seek re-election.
Estep has extensive experience defending court-appointed clients charged with misdemeanors and felonies at all levels, including first degree murder.
He can be found many days in the Greene County Courthouse and, with his expanded responsibilities, in other courts in the 3rd Judicial District.
The former Marine’s signature bow ties and friendly military demeanor make him easily identifiable in court.
‘BEST DEFENCE’ A PRIORITY
Estep this week explained his vision for the Office of the Public Defender.
“My priority is to provide our clients and the community with the best representation of indigent defense in the state. One of the ways we intend to achieve this goal is to offer a holistic approach to the legal representation,” he said.
Esteps’ office will “provide services beyond the legal matter” by implementing what it calls the “Empower Initiative.”
“The Empower Initiative is a community-driven initiative aimed at reducing recidivism, recidivism, while forging a new future for our clients. With the help of Lindsey Holt, our Licensed Senior Social Worker, we will provide client-centered, community-focused advocacy models to better serve communities in Greene, Hamblen, Hancock and Hawkins counties,” said Estep.
Estep said the service will focus on follow-up plans for clients on probation or currently facing charges within the justice system.
“Each individualized follow-up plan will focus on identifying the risks of recurrence and provide a plan with the support they need to avoid those risks. Often these risks include a history of mental health and substance abuse as well as social environmental risks,” he said.
The aim is to reduce recidivism and give people on probation “the support they need to chart a new, positive path”.
It’s a pathway “designed to bring families together, communities together, get people to work, and take pressure off the justice system and law enforcement,” Estep said.
“The Empower initiative is based on the idea that every customer has inherent value. Our job is to help them solve their legal problems and help those who are ready to forge a new future,” he said.
HEAVY LOAD LOAD
Public defenders are appointed for approximately 8,500 cases per year in the 3rd Judicial District.
Greene County accounts for about 2,200 of the cases.
“Over the past five years, cases have increased dramatically,” Estep said.
For example, Estep said that between 2017 and 2018, the number of cases from the Public Defender’s Office increased by approximately 15%.
The numbers have increased every year.
“I believe the reason for this increase was the increased supply of meth shipped to our area and the reduction in homemade meth that we saw earlier in the decade,” Estep said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a dramatic impact on the justice system.
“The courts were closed or had limited access. This resulted in a reduction in the number of cases opened and closed compared to previous years. It is unclear at this stage whether the reduction in the number of cases is associated with a drop in recidivism based on drug rehabilitation efforts by the courts or with a lower number of court cases, due to the measures of response to COVID 19,” Estep said.
The 2021 numbers “indicate that the system is still dealing with COVID-era cases and has not yet rebounded to pre-COVID case counts,” he said.
“As we continue to move beyond the COVID era and statistics become available, we will better understand how the number of cases has increased, decreased or maintained their number. Our Empower initiative will be the first effort of its kind to track trends in our local public defense and hopefully provide an explanation based on the data of our case counts and success rates,” Estep said.
Prosecutors, judges and local law enforcement officials said the vast majority of criminal offenses committed were related to methamphetamine or other drugs.
“I believe 95% of all criminal cases in our district are fueled by substance abuse and mental health issues. Typically, when one of these two risk factors exists, you also have the other,” he said.
“People are self-medicating for various physical, mental and emotional issues. For more serious mental health issues, there is less access to appropriate medication, and people who need treatment and medication end up in the criminal justice system,” Estep said.
Options available to the justice system include incarceration and rehabilitation. The latter has become a special object of study because drug addiction has reached epidemic proportions in the 3rd judicial district.
“As evidenced by (Governor Bill Lee’s) criminal justice reform, the justice system understands that we are not going to incarcerate to get out of the drug epidemic that plagues our justice system. Eventually, non-violent drug offenders will be released,” Estep said. “What is needed is a more balanced approach to deterrence (prison) and rehabilitation.”
“Every entity within the system is obligated to seek or defend justice. I believe that our adversarial system can help correct this tendency. I firmly believe that in our district we have elected the right people and have a great opportunity to have a positive impact on the drug epidemic and the people it affects, both accused and victim, that we do not ‘have ever had,” Estep said.
MORE PUBLIC DEFENDERS NEEDED
More public defenders are needed to effectively offer defense to those who cannot afford an attorney, Estep said.
The deputy public defenders of the 3rd judicial district have a heavy workload.
“Each year, Tennessee recruits more law enforcement officers from other states to join the Highway Patrol. In recent years, the legislature and the governor’s budget have included more highway patrol positions as well as assistant district attorneys and assistant public defenders,” Estep said. “However, the number of deputy public defenders has not, in my view, kept pace with the increase in law enforcement positions statewide.”
The result “is longer wait times for cases to be processed, longer court dockets, which tie up officers, alleged victims and witnesses in court when cases may or may not be resolved,” said he declared.
Estep said the office of the 3rd Judicial District Public Defender’s Office is 98% publicly funded. Greene and Hawkins counties approved a $12.50 levy collected on criminal cases filed in those jurisdictions to be redistributed for use by public defenders in the county in which the money was collected, he said. declared.
“This money is used to support the public defense mission in this county. Hamblen and Hancock are the only counties that have not approved this statutory funding mechanism available to the Office of the Public Defender,” Estep said.
“I believe if you walk into any county in the state you will see multiple assistant district attorneys, but more likely there will be fewer assistant public defenders or a single assistant public defender with the majority of the cases on that case. It creates a bottleneck in the justice system that hampers the effectiveness of everyone involved,” he said.
Estep characterizes himself as “a conservative Republican through and through” and acknowledges that “the addition of state-funded positions is a burden on the taxpayer and certainly not something I take lightly.”
“However, I believe that the taxpayer has an important interest in justice and the fair and efficient handling of criminal cases. Despite these competing interests, I believe the public has a major interest in ensuring that the Conference of (State) Public Defenders is adequately staffed,” Estep said.
The 3rd Judicial District Public Defender’s Office currently has nine deputy public defenders, including three in Greene County, four in Hamblen County, and two who handle cases in Hawkins and Hancock counties.
Estep, a longtime Greene County resident, cited cases attributed to him.
“My caseload includes nearly every first degree murder case in our district and every probation violation in Hamblen County,” he said.
Estep estimates he is assigned approximately 350 cases that include Class A felonies and probation violations in addition to his duties as a district-wide public defender.
“On average, if we have 8,500 files per year with nine assistants, that makes 945 files per lawyer. The American Bar Association suggests that an attorney should not bring records that exceed 400 misdemeanors or 150 felony cases, (and) less if those numbers are combined. My lawyers usually hit those numbers before the summer every year,” he said.
“In a perfect world, we would need about 11 more positions to meet the ABA’s suggested workload standard,” Estep said.
“Keeping the taxpayer burden in mind, my goal is to achieve a caseload of approximately 650 cases per lawyer or less. I believe we can provide unparalleled legal service to our counties at a lower cost with the addition of two to three positions instead of the eleven positions we should have,” he said.
As part of the Empower initiative, Estep said his office “will be seeking grant opportunities for the first time in the history of the 3rd Judicial District.”
The staff of the Public Defender’s Office of the 3rd Judicial District have potentially life-changing responsibilities.
It is responsible, Estep said, “to ensure that the rights of people are the same regardless of economic or social status. The people of Greene, Hamblen, Hancock and Hawkins counties have entrusted me with the responsibility, for which I am grateful, and I will do my best to ensure that the people we represent and our communities have the best criminal defense service available. ”
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