A recent hire by the Shelby County Public Defender's Office has already made waves in the criminal justice system, and she hasn't even received her bar exam results yet.
Courtney Francik is awaiting her bar results, but she already jumpstarted her career with a high-profile case covered by The New York Times last year, in which President Obama granted clemency in a push to commute sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Rudolph Norris, who had served 22 years in prison, was convicted of the possession and sale of crack cocaine in the early 1990s.
Francik was apparently instrumental in the process of his clemency, according to The New York Times article. She worked with the law clinic at George Washington University, where she got her law degree, to get Norris his clemency.
"Miss Courtney, y'all kept telling me I was a primary person the clemency was about," Norris told her, according to the Times. "I kept hearing how confident y'all were. That's what made me make it. Y'all were the vessels to get me home."
Before seeking her law degree, Francik completed her bachelor's at Harvard University in political science and government.
"I went to law school knowing I wanted to focus on racial and economic injustice, so I really didn't know what shape that would take," she said. "I ended up focusing on the criminal justice system and deciding that I wanted to be a public defender."
In her job search, Shelby County came up on lists of public defenders that were client-focused; that is, she explains, maintaining the same level of service despite the high number of caseloads "just like private representation would."
She had already heard of the office because of the Jericho Project, which is dedicated to serving those with serious mental illnesses and substance-oriented disorders who are stuck in a criminal justice loop, by providing them with recovery options and support systems. The Jericho Project boasts a 40 percent recidivism rate for that population, compared to 80 percent without the program.
"Shelby County was the first public defender's office to [implement the program]," Francik said. "It actually served as a model."
The more she learned about the office, she said, the more she felt drawn to Shelby County. Francik is now one of the new fellows with Gideon's Promise, an organization that focuses on public defense reform that the Shelby County Public Defender's Office adopted early on. Part of the organization dedicates new public defenders to training, offering a three-year program for those who have worked three years or less.
As to why she originally got into public defense, her roots in the suburbs of Baltimore originally shielded her from economic and racial injustices, but once becoming privy to those issues, she "couldn't ignore it."
"There are some similarities [between Memphis and Baltimore]," Francik said. "It's a big metropolitan area with a small-town feel. It just felt like the right place to be."