For decades now, directly impacted communities, organizers, public defenders, academics, and others have sounded the alarm on the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States and its devastating effects on people of color and low-income communities, particularly in Black communities. Countless reforms aimed at protecting the rights of the accused and shrinking the size of the nation’s prison population have been suggested, and some have even been enacted, albeit with limited success. However, most of these policies focus on lawyers and the courts as centers of change and ignore the power of those most affected by the criminal legal system––the individuals accused of crimes and their loved ones. This is where participatory defense comes in. 

What is Participatory Defense?

Participatory defense is “a community organizing model for people facing charges, their families, and communities to impact the outcomes of cases and transform the landscape of power in the court system.” The model was developed by Raj Jaydev and directly impacted folks working out of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a community organizing, advocacy, and multimedia storytelling organization in San José, California beginning in 2007. As explained by Jaydev, “participatory defense essentially tries to make the family an extension of the defense team, a source of information and power for what is almost always a public defender.” Through this work, participatory defense changes the way that justice is exercised and experienced in America by shifting power towards those who have direct contact with the system. 

There are three ideas central to the model’s approach and the support it offers participants:

  • Family Justice Hubs: Hubs host weekly meetings to connect families whose loved ones are facing criminal charges with each other and to develop strategies for participating in their loved one’s defense. Participants are trained in investigative skills like how to analyze police reports and court transcripts, as well as how to create “social biography videos” and other mitigation tools to improve case outcomes. They also learn how to navigate the criminal legal process and how to court watch. Meetings are held in community venues like churches, schools, and libraries and are facilitated by individuals who formerly participated in the defense of their own loved ones. Lawyers are never present. This leadership model illustrates the emphasis that participatory defense places on not only changing case outcomes, but harnessing the agency of and building the political power of those harmed by incarceration. 
  • From Time Served to Time Saved: Individuals who attend family justice hub meetings will hear one refrain repeatedly––“while the system intends to give their loved ones time served––that is, time incarcerated and away from daily and community––they can turn time served into time saved.” As such, one metric for measuring the impact of a participatory defense effort is through “time saved,” which subtracts the final sentence or outcome of a case from the maximum sentence that the individual was facing before engaging in participatory defense. In order to accomplish the goal of “saving time,” families and friends work with public defenders, or push them when necessary, to investigate cases, develop mitigation materials, and attend their loved one’s court appearances. Participatory defense practitioners like to point out that in many ways, the term simply puts a name to practices that have been occurring in communities and families impacted by the criminal legal system for decades. For instance, people have always written letters to judges on behalf of their loved ones or accompanied friends and family to court to show their support of the accused. However, one of the hopes is that, “if these actions are reimagined as part and parcel of a larger, named practice rather than isolated responses, then a more profound sustained reshaping of the criminal justice system can occur…”
  • Protest and Celebration: Through public protest, participatory defense holds system actors accountable to the people who are affected by their actions. Through celebration, participatory defense builds morale, inspires change, and spreads the movement’s work and theory of change. For instance, when a person who has been separated from their community as a result of system involvement returns home, they come to their family justice hub and erase their name from a whiteboard in the presence of all of those who participated in their defense. Additionally, groups collect, record, and share the stories of their participants through narrative building and storytelling practices. 

What is the Current State of Participatory Defense? 

Today, there are over thirty hubs in cities across the country that make up the National Participatory Defense Network. Jaydev and others travel around the country training public defenders and community organizations in participatory defense and how to establish and sustain family justice hubs. Additionally, organizers and impacted individuals have begun to pair the approach with other innovative systems of support. For instance, in New York, VOCAL-NY has developed a model that offers harm-reduction tools and participatory defense training to its members. As of 2018, participatory defense has taken back 6,500 years of incarceration from the criminal legal system.  

To learn more about participatory defense, check out the following videos:

Photo credit: Participatory Defense Network