Shelby County DA announces plan to have non-violent offenders judged by community panels

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby County prosecutors announced a plan Tuesday to keep certain non-violent offenders out of jail and out of court.

Under the new program, those offenders won’t face a judge. Instead, they’ll face a community panel where the crime occurred. 

“So if it’s a theft case at your local mom-and-pop grocery store,” District Attorney Amy Weirich said. “The victims will be heard. The community will be heard.”

When it’s time to pass sentence, jail time will not be an option. 

“It might be job training; it might be taking classes,” Weirich said. “Paying restitution to the victim. Writing an apology letter to the victim.”

Once the sentence is served, the case will be cleared from the offender’s record.

Each panel is made up of three members. The county is looking for applicants, and anyone can apply, even those with criminal histories.

Keith Dunning spent nearly 20 years in prison for gun crime, and he wants to be a panelist.

“I, personally, can sit down face-to-face with an offender that did something small, look him in the eye and really tell him what’s up,” Dunning said.

Prosecutors are still deciding which non-violent offenses will qualify. They’re also considering an age range.

“We’re still playing around with those, so we got that sweet spot and don’t overburden the panels,” Weirich said.

The county needs lots of panels. Pastor Deandre Brown is helping the DA’s office recruit panelists.

“In America, there’s this big push for criminal justice reform, and this is what criminal justice system reform looks like.” Pastor Brown said. “This should be something that we are singing from every corner, from the rooftops, from the pulpits.”

The victims in these cases must agree to this form of prosecution, but they don’t have to attend the hearings. Prosecutors hope to start the program in September.

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