Raj Jayadev

Ashoka Fellow
United States,
Fellow Since 2014
Silicon Valley Debug


This profile was prepared when Raj Jayadev was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.
The New Idea
Raj Jayadev founded the A.C. Justice Project to give citizens facing charges a stake in their justice system and provide pathways for them to make it work better. His idea is straightforward yet transformative: coalesce into a movement those facing incarceration, their families and communities, and the attorneys who represent them. The staggering numbers of Americans behind bars – 1 out of every 100 – share one thing in common: They all got there through the same delivery system, US criminal courts. Through what Raj calls “participatory defense,” ordinary citizens become the changemakers that shift case outcomes and then transform the agents and institutions of the courts themselves. The irony of mass incarceration is that the ballooning numbers of those locked up are simultaneously swelling the ranks of the movement that can bring it to an end.

Participatory defense begins at the level of individual cases. Families and friends of those accused of a crime become extensions of the legal defense team – scouring police reports, discussing defense strategy, creating mitigation material (including creative new tools like social biography videos), and maintaining a presence in the courtroom. This immediately gives public defenders, who are typically overwhelmed with their caseloads, room to explore options other than the quickest path to a plea deal. Such community involvement has dramatically reduced the incidence and duration of prison sentences.

At a broader system level, participatory defense represents a set of guiding principles and actions that any community in America can adopt to provide the fair representation guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment but rarely provided in practice. It starts with a fundamentally new relationship between public defenders and their client communities. Indeed, with 8 in 10 Americans who face criminal charges assigned a public defender, improving public defense is perhaps the least talked about yet most significant way to reduce incarceration rates. As such, Raj and his team identify reform-minded public defenders’ offices nationwide willing to test and champion participatory defense, and help them build meaningful avenues for community involvement. Simultaneously, after years of refining strategies at the local level, Raj is now sharing those strategies with civic organizations of all kinds across the U.S. – from churches to neighborhood associations to local unions – that can be home bases for practicing participatory defense. This elegant spread strategy taps into existing community organizing IQ and channels that latent power to penetrate and reform our justice system. With origins in San Jose, California, the A.C. Justice project is now expanding the field of participatory defense from Missouri to Alabama, Louisiana and New York.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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