ACJP Holds First Ever Mitigation Packet Workshop for Families

At De-Bug’s ACJP, we have worked with countless families on a case by case basis on how they can construct a mitigation packet — a collection of letters, photos, certificates — to be submitted to their public defender to use for charge or sentence reduction. The packets have helped stop life sentences, have removed strike priors, turned felonies into misdemeanors, and over all reduced the amount of incarceration for community members. This week we held our first workshop, walking through the process, requirements, and approaches for families to create effective packets. In the room are mothers who sons were facing significant prison time, families who’s loved ones faced deportation, and others. We are excited to share the workshop to whomever is interested so they too can help bring the power of family story into the courtroom to impact cases. Feel free to email us if interested in a workshop! In the image, on the wall on the right, are pictures of families we have done social biography videos for, and a map of where we have trained public defenders on the concept.

In a small group setting, Charisse leas families through a presentation on creating effective mitigation packets.

In a small group setting at De-Bug, Charisse and Cece leads families through a presentation on creating effective mitigation packets.



Atlanta Public Defender Cuts a 25 Year Sentence to 3 With Use of Our Social Biography Video Process!

Much respect to Gideon’s Promise warrior Anna Kurien of the Fulton County Public Defender’s Office, who after attending a workshop we gave on how public defenders can make social biography videos to reduce sentences, took the plunge and tried one for the sake of her client. Anna is a profoundly committed advocate, and we had great conversations when she would call to get feedback on interviews and production, and she spent weekends getting footage with her client and family. Read her story to see her remarkable results!

Anna Kurien of the Fulton County Public Defender Office made her first social biography video to amazing success.

Anna Kurien of the Fulton County Public Defender Office made her first social biography video to amazing success.

My 41 year client faced a charge that carried a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison with no possibility of parole. Given my review of the case, I knew that I had to put all my energy towards mitigation and hope for a miracle. After attending the Gideon’s Promise training on social biography videos conducted by Raj from De-Bug’s ACJP, I knew this was a compelling case for mitigation and that a social biography video would humanize  my client to the State.

After hours of attorney-client conversations and meeting with our office social worker, we developed the main points we wanted to communicate through the video. Continue reading

How My First Felony Leads Me To My First Time Voting (By Steeda McGruder)


Steeda McGruder shares her testimony at a Yes on Prop 47 event with labor and youth advocates.

My first charge as an adolescent was a petty theft. When I think back 19 years ago my reasons for my actions seem so juvenile — peer pressure, lack of adult influence in my life and simply boredom growing up in a small town population 26,000 and a huge drug scene. A petty theft was simply entertainment to young people back in those days. When I turned 18, I was super excited to have shook the juvenile system. I had many great plans and ideas of what my life would be like now that I was free from the juvenile system. I guess you could say I had hope for my future, but to my surprise shortly after I turned 18 I was incarcerated for another petty theft.

My behaviors had never been addressed, just pushed aside. I had time to serve, but never the support or tools needed to be truly corrected. I’m sure you can imagine at the age of 18, my ideas about life are completely different than at the age of 12, especially being a single mom at the age of 18. Life showed up, and when it did, I behaved in a way that screamed “just survive.” Continue reading

Shifting From Prisons To Schools: Redemption In California (By Raj Jayadev)

McGruder at an event with ACJP organizer Blanca Bosquez.

ACJP organizers Stacey McGruder and Blanca Bosquez at a Yes on Prop 47 event.

In 1999, about this time of the year, I was hanging billboard-size banners off freeway overpasses with a bunch of people I just met that morning. The spray-painted bedsheets read “No on Prop 21!” and “Stop Criminalizing Youth of Color.”

We were part of California’s burgeoning youth movement – mainly twentysomethings who were coming of age at a fork-in-the-road moment for the state in terms of how it viewed, responded to and served its young people.

Proposition 21 was a “tough-on-crime” initiative from a continuum of policies set in the 1980s. Under its language, juveniles could be charged as adults, which would significantly increase prison sentences for a broad array of felonies. Ultimately, it promised to dramatically increase California’s incarceration rates.

California voters passed Proposition 21 (despite massive organizing by young people). It committed California — financially and ethically — to the notion that “lock-them-up politics” was a sound public safety framework to move us forward. Generations of California’s youth have been paying the price ever since.

Our prisons are now so crowded that the U.S. Supreme Court found them in violation of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. And the money required to support the exponential growth in California’s incarceration numbers has depleted public resources that could have gone to opportunities and supportive structures for youth through education and social services. Continue reading

Are judicial elections a fraud on voters? (By Aram James)

imagesAs we head into the November 4th election, let’s take a look at the election process involving judicial candidates. Are we the public getting a fair shake from the candidates? Are we being as fully informed on the issues as the First Amendment allows? Or are the candidates for judicial office playing the public and the voters for fools?

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision, in Republican Party v. White, 536 U.S. 765, struck down Minnesota’s so-called announce clause, a portion of a judicial canon that prohibited candidates from announcing their views on the hot button and disputed legal, political and social issues of the day.

The rationale for the announce clause being that any candidate, who publicly expressed his or her views on controversial issues, would be precluded from hearing cases involving similar issues, once they took the bench, on the theory that having once expressed a view on a given issue, that might later come before the candidate on the court, would evidence a disqualifying bias.

The White court explicitly shot down this reasoning, declaring the announce clause unconstitutional and violative of the First Amendment.

California had a similar provision limiting candidates from addressing the controversial issues of the day. Subsequent to the White decision California’s Code of Judicial Ethics eliminated its own “announce clause.” The Supreme Court’s holding in White, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, could not be clearer: “The Minnesota Supreme Court’s canon prohibiting candidates for judicial election from announcing their views on disputed legal and political issues violates the First Amendment.”

In an equally clear statement in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurring opinion in White, he said, ”The political speech of candidates is at the heart of the First Amendment, and direct restrictions on the content of candidate speech are simply beyond the power of the government to impose.”

The First Amendment concerns addressed by the court in White were not just the candidates’ rights, but the rights of the citizens as well: the right to be as fully informed (as possible) of the candidates’ views, on the critical issues of the day, before casting their vote.

A compelling quote in the majority opinion in White drives home this point:
“The greater power to dispense with elections altogether does not include the lesser power to conduct elections under conditions of state-imposed voter ignorance. If the state chooses to tap the energy and the legitimizing power of the democratic process, it must accord the participants in that process … the First Amendment rights that attach to their roles.”
As a citizen and as lawyer, I have put forth my best efforts to draw out the judicial candidates post White, over numerous election cycles, asking the candidates to really inform the citizens about their thinking process on the issues, issues like the death penalty, our current homelessness crisis, mass incarceration, which is disproportionally visited on the poor and communities of color, gay marriage, reparations for African Americans, race based jury nullification and other controversial issues. But sadly I can say, thus far, I have mostly failed in my efforts.

Instead of complying with the mandate of White, the candidates — almost without exception — balk at answering the hard questions and issues, often acting as thought the White decision didn’t exist and the “announce clause” remains in full force.
The candidates often reply that they can’t give their views on the issues, because to do so would run afoul of California Code of Judicial Ethics.

This is simply not true. The prohibition set out in the California Code of Judicial Ethics, and consistent with the White decision, is a prohibition on promising or committing to decide a case or issue in particular manner, the so called “commit or promise clause,” but no similar prohibition remains that prevents candidates from giving their personal views on the issues.
The truth is the White decision (whether the ABA Committee on Judicial ethics or the California equivalent, likes it or not) gives the candidates extremely wide latitude to fully inform the voters of their views on the most controversial of issues, so long as they don’t violate the “commit clause.”

Everyone in the judicial system knows this is the law, but most pretend that the “announce clause” is still in place, all to the extreme detriment of the voters’ First Amendments rights and to what could otherwise be a vital, educational and robust election process.

More often than not, in the current climate of hide-the-ball from the voters, judicial races turn into mind numbing voter turn-off contests, a race to the bottom between the candidates as to which one can accumulate the longest list of law enforcement and judicial endorsement, almost like addressing the substantive issues of the day is of no importance.
In other words, educating the public on substantive issues be dammed! It’s all about winning!

Given the White mandate — that voters have a First Amendment right to be fully informed on the issues before they exercise their franchise for a particular candidate — any judicial candidate who purposely engages in the obstruction of our democracy, by pretending that they can’t address the hot button issues of the day is, without a doubt, unfit to serve in the critical role judges are supposed to play in our society: helping to define and shape justice in our communities. It’s time we the public, including pro-democracy lawyers and judges, unmask the charade engaged in by most judicial candidates, and speak out against such voter fraud.

It’s past time we put the mandate of the White decision into play.

This piece originally appeared in the Daily Journal. Aram James is a retired Santa Clara County deputy public defender and a cofounder of the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project (ACJP)

Artesia On Our Minds — An Immigration Attorney’s Diary of a Detention Camp

photo-60Immigration attorney Helen Lawrence, who has helped ACJP families beat deportation cases, recently went to the Artesia immigration detention facility in New Mexico that houses women and children to provide pro-bono legal services.  Read about her powerful reflections on her experiences.

This past week I went with a 10-attorney contingent from the Bay Area to provide pro-bono legal services for a week in an immigration detention center in Artesia, New Mexico that holds between 400-500 ​women and children who were detained in the border refugee crisis this summer. Our primary purpose was to represent women and children in bond and asylum cases in this remote facility. We are all still unpacking the experience.

Our arrival ​day felt full of prescient moments. During our 4am ride to the airport, when our Senegalese Uber driver learned where we were headed and what we were headed to do, he played Redemption Song for us, hopefully setting the tone for this trip.​ ​On the four and a half hour drive from Albuquerque to Artesia under the big New Mexican skies, we encountered rainstorms and tumbleweeds. Continue reading

“Participatory Defense” – Transforming the Courts Through Family and Community Organizing (By Raj Jayadev)

"Tony" erases his name at a Participatory Defense meeting ceremony -- where families who bring loves ones home from incarceration eras their names from the whiteboard.

“Tony” erases his name at a Participatory Defense meeting ceremony — where families who bring loves ones home from incarceration eras their names from the whiteboard.

Tony is 13 years old and just got out from 99 days in juvenile hall. He sat shyly at the edge of the table next to his mother, responding respectfully to the “congratulations” and “welcome homes” that were directed to him from strangers who knew him only through his mother’s stories and seeing his name on a whiteboard at the meeting they all attend every week. Tony is at what we’ve dubbed our ‘family justice hub’ meeting — weekly gathering of families whose loved ones are facing criminal charges. He is here to be a part of the one ceremony we have – when a family brings a loved one home by either beating the charges, receiving a reduced sentence, or a dismissal as a result of their intervention into the case — and they erase their name from the board. The room of roughly 20 people breaks into applause when Tony takes the eraser to his name, his mother thanking the community who walked with her and her son through the darkest 99 days of their lives. She is in tears. Tony was facing years of incarceration, but due to her advocacy and the public defender’s lawyering, her son will be able to have his 14th birthday at home.

If tradition holds, Tony’s mom will continue attending the meetings, and assist other families who find themselves in the position she once did. She will share with them what she learned here from others — how to partner with or push the public defender, how to dissect police reports and court transcripts, and how to build a sustained community presence in the courtroom to let judges and prosecutors know the person facing charges is not alone.

We call the approach “participatory defense” – a community organizing model for people facing charges, their families, and their communities to impact the outcome of cases and transform the landscape of power in the court system.

As incarceration rates balloon to astronomical levels – 1 out of 100 Americans are currently locked up — participatory defense may the most assessable way directly affected communities can challenge mass incarceration, and have the movement building dynamic of seeing timely and locally relevant results of their efforts. It is a penetration into the one domain that facilitates people going to prisons and jails, yet has been left largely unexplored by the ground up movement to end mass incarceration – the courts. Please believe there are Tony’s across the country waiting to come home, and communities that, if equipped, can do just that – bring him home. Continue reading