Raj is growing a national movement to advance the concept of “participatory defense” whereby families and communities most impacted by mass incarceration in the United States can effectively participate in the criminal defense process and transform the landscape of power in the court system.
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 United States imprisons more people per capita than any other country in the world by far—with Russia and Rwanda a distant second and third. There 2.3 million Americans behind bars, with a new prison or jail opening every week. Mass incarceration has destroyed lives, ripped apart families and communities, and depleted needed public resources. Layer these staggering numbers on top of the racial disparities of who is sent to prison and it’s no surprise that many consider defeating mass incarceration as the civil rights mandate of our time. If current incarceration trends persist, one out every three black males born today will go to prison.
The problem has become so deep, and the numbers so large, that a national examination of the logic and ethics of mass incarceration is finally taking place. Across the United States, policing techniques are under scrutiny, mandatory sentencing laws are being challenged and overturned, and a “tough on crime” stance is no longer unquestionably embraced. And yet despite agreement by historians, policymakers, civil rights leaders, and others that a “mass” movement is needed to end mass incarceration, such a movement has not yet materialized as families and communities have struggled to find accessible entry points through which to lead and engage in a transformation. Indeed, despite the wealth of organizing capacity marginalized communities rely on to fix schools, hold police agencies accountable, petition for public green space, and much more, when it comes to the justice system, most are left hoping for a better-than-average lawyer. There simply does not exist an organized constituency for a better justice system.
In addition, today’s criminal justice reform efforts focus on one’s entry into the system (for example, police practices like racial profiling and stop-and-frisk) or on re-entry post-incarceration, with very little attention paid the court system itself. As a result, defendants face their charges unnecessarily alone and with a feeling of powerlessness. Court language and norms remain exclusionary, and leave little room for empathy. Public defenders are infamously overworked, under-resourced, and often ill equipped to effectively represent the huge caseloads they manage. Very few have relationships with the communities they serve. And by and large, many of the practices that contribute to mass incarceration in the first place have gone unchallenged by the people with the most at stake.
Raj’s strategy is to build a vibrant field of participatory defense that is practiced nationally within 10 years. This means refining and sharing a set of principles and how-tos, working closely with early adopter champions among both public defenders’ offices and community organizations, and crafting new language that gives shape and purpose to disparate efforts. Many of the key pieces exist already – it is a matter of bringing them together to catalyze change.
The tenets of participatory defense were developed at the local level in San Jose, California. Embedded within the community organization Silicon Valley Debug, the A.C. Justice Project evolved one case a time, each building on the learnings of the last. The strategy was really to apply community organizing principles to the criminal defense process. But this meant much more than petitioning outside courtrooms: it meant tapping into any and all human capital that could influence case outcomes – a kind of legal crowdsourcing that can re-balance the scales in a system heavily favoring district attorney’s offices. Patterns of opportunities and success emerged, which led to the development of innovative tools that could be inserted at various stages of an individual’s path through the system. One of the more creative and effective tools is social biography videos which focus on a defendant’s humanity and highlight the extensive support community he or she can rely on to get back on the right path. In one example, a defendant’s extended family worked with the ACJP team to produce a video biography of a typical day in his life. He was a single father of two daughters, and the video included him doing what all parents do: making pancakes for breakfast, helping his daughters with their homework, and more. It helped change a 5-year sentence for a drug possession charge into a six months’ out-patient treatment program, a decision which was significant for his daughters to avoid foster care.
In many ways, this family and community engagement in cases takes the form of an extended legal defense team. Families meet weekly, supporting one another as they navigate the maze of the adjudication process, and strategizing around the spaces where they can influence its path. Raj and his team have identified intervention points along the timeline of any case where community input can change the case trajectory. It could, for example, be the family securing investigatory material early in a case, offering defense strategy for a trial, giving day-by-day jury observations to trial lawyers, or submitting mitigation packets for a sentencing. It might be recruiting expert witnesses for the defense. In addition to helping reduce or eliminate prison time for individual cases, over time, these legal changemaker teams identify patterns where policy reforms may be appropriate. In San Jose, for example, ACJP partnered with the public defender’s office and civil rights groups to guarantee attorneys are present at misdemeanor arraignments, end immigration deportations for those being held in county jails, and stopped the gang enhancements that accompanied graffiti offenses, which meant sentences two to three times the normal length. Finally, the family meetings provide emotional support for those with loved ones facing prison – a powerful antidote to the isolation of the criminal justice system.
Over the last two to three years, in part because of an effective media and communications strategy, the demand to learn more about participatory defense has grown. Raj is now focused on distilling the core principles of his work and facilitating their adoption. He knows a vibrant field will require many champions, and so he has crafted his spread strategy with partnerships at the center. Public defender’s offices are a key starting point because they are so intimately involved in the majority of criminal cases in this country. The collaborative (as opposed to adversarial) frame of participatory defense is especially appealing to chief defenders, who are beginning to see how additional manpower can help them do their jobs better. Raj is working with notable organizations like Gideon’s Promise and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, as well as with public defenders’ offices in Pennsylvania, Birmingham, New Orleans, and several counties in California. In addition to the language of participatory defense, Raj and his team have recently launched a campaign around “Time Saved” that aggregates the number of prison years saved as a result of community involvement, and that he hopes can give public defenders a more public and more positive platform to frame the essential work they do every day. The Time Saved campaign is a documentary series, public art installations, and community forums. In the Bay Area alone, they recently celebrated 1,862 years of time saved from participatory defense, holding a unique celebratory gathering of the families and attorneys who made that number a reality.
The partnerships strategy also includes training community hubs for participatory defense. Once again, the beauty is that nearly any community organization can act as a hub. Raj compares it to having fire extinguishers and a set of evacuation procedures in every building – community groups can similarly have a basic set of how-tos for responding and intervening effectively into the criminal defense process in times of crisis. In 2015 he will work with 3 to 5 communities in different parts of the country more intensely so they will more rapidly be able to train others. Importantly, the strategy is not about franchising what ACJP has done in San Jose; rather, Raj likens it to conveying a set of movements – like in martial arts – that others can start with and then make their own. The linguistic anchor of “participatory defense” alone is significant in that it gives a name and a structure to the many isolated responses already happening, and allows for a more profound, sustained reshaping of the criminal justice system by impacted communities.
In 5 to 10 years, Raj believes participatory defense should be a commonly conceptualized practice that is not only limited to criminal justice reform groups. He can see intermediate advancements – a Participatory Defense Institute, annual gatherings of a network of practitioners, a book chronicling families and communities who used it to stop incarceration, and more. But ultimately, the results should be a larger, more inclusive discussion around incarceration in America that has people who have looked under the hood of its mechanics at the center. It should result in the demystification and democratization of the criminal court system, and a more thoughtful, grounded conversation about public safety in America. And it will give untold numbers of people across the country the opportunity to drive change and thus develop a new perspective about their ability to do so in other arenas as well. The movement to end mass incarceration will have been formed.
Well before developing the A.C. Justice Project and the concept of participatory defense, Raj founded Silicon Valley De-Bug in 2001, a community organization and journalism platform focused on serving the less visible communities of Silicon Valley. Though Raj had studied social movements as a student, and during a formative year in India post-college, his work as a community organizer and social entrepreneur really began on the assembly line of a printer factory in San Jose, where hundreds of low-wage workers, many of them recent immigrants, went largely unnoticed despite building the products and product parts flowing from the tech boom. What’s worse, many of the younger workers were skeptical of their own collective power to fight for their rights, even in situations when their wages were being withheld unfairly. So Raj began producing a journal to give voice to the lives and stories of his peers, and eventually to use those stories as a starting point for civic action.
In time it became clear that for communities on the edges, the criminal justice system was one of the most prevalent forces in their lives, and was riddled with injustice. Policing practices in San Jose had become especially egregious and led to ballooning allegations of wrongful arrests. Drunk in public charges in particular had become a form of “attitude arrest” that police used without discretion. As a trusted community organization, Silicon Valley De-bug suddenly found itself at the center of the crisis, responding weekly to new cases of police abuse or negligence, or to other failings of the broader system. Raj soon realized that despite not having a good deal of legal knowledge, the many people involved with De-bug in various capacities possessed a different kind of expertise that could contribute a great deal to individual cases – in the form of relationships and capacity and trust. These early experiences would become the foundation for the A.C. Justice Project and the idea of participatory defense. And the project’s beginnings as a community association, rather than a criminal justice reform initiative, give credence to Raj’s belief that participatory defense can have many homes. He has said from the beginning that the concept should be thought of not as a static invention or program, but rather a naming of an inclination that already exists in communities across the country, in order to advance its potency and impact.