“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
Image from our most recent social biography video in New York. Charisse capturing this mother’s reflection of the first time she stood in the backyard of the home her son bought her.
We are here in her backyard to do a video to keep her son out of prison. She never had a backyard before. She raised her kids, as a single mother, in apartments down the hill in this small New York town. When her son was grown, he walks her by this house and asks her if she likes it. He used to cut the lawn during summers there as a boy. She says yes, and he says, “It’s yours now ma, I bought it for you.” She has cancer now, has had part of her lungs removed. She can’t come out back that often because it gets hard to breath, but standing here used to be her favorite thing. The day she first stood in her backyard (the moment she is recalling now and telling Charisse) she says is the happiest moment of her 85 years. Her son, who now takes care of her full time, is facing prison time, and she is is sharing with us his story, her story, the family story, so we can produce this social biography video for the judge to know the impact of his possible incarceration.
She was scared when probation first came barging in her house, pushing her aside to get her son. But at 85, she is still her son’s mother, and stepped in front of them, and told them not to disrespect the house. When they come now, they knock first, as she asked. She sees them through the window but asks, “Who is it?” They answer, now as polite as she has trained them. And then, sometimes, she makes them wait, just for a brief beat of moment.
Our friend, colleague, and mentor Jonathan Rapping has just received a McArthur Genius Award! Rapping and the Gideon’s Promise team are revolutionizing public defense in this country by both being innovative and forward thinking, yet deeply embedded in the traditions and values of America’s civil rights movement. Check out the piece we wrote on Rapping last year, Gideon’s Army Deserves Back Up. We have been honored to partner with Rapping to train his lawyers at Gideon’s Promise gatherings in Atlanta and North Carolina on our social biography video concept. Below is a pic of Rap with Fernando a couple months back at Wake Forest Law School. Congrats to Rapping and the Gideon’s Promise team! Click the image to see the video on Rapping on the McArthur website.
Thanks to Equal Voice News for asking us to write a piece explaining the philosophy of De-Bug and ACJP. In the essay, we explain what principles guide us towards a belief that — including other goals — families stop incarceration, institutions can bend to the gravity of true justice, and communities transform the courts. Click image to read article >>>
We recently had the opportunity to travel to a historic touchstone of the civil rights movement — Montgomery, Alabama — to work with and train six public defender offices in producing social biography videos to reduce charges and sentences. Some of the participating offices are brand new, born from a call from the community to create public defender offices in order to better protect the rights of the indigent, while others have had decades of history of advocating in the courts. We are excited to equip these offices — long-standing and new — with this tool as they advocate for justice for their clients. Here are some flicks, from our great connection in the South!
Jean sharing the concepts of how to tell a family story for the courts.
The police killing of Michael Brown has sparked outrage across the county, and protests in North St.Louis. An understanding of the context of the police dynamics, community, and the political realities of the area can give a fuller picture to the images America is seeing on social media and on their television screens. De-Bug was in North St. Louis just weeks before the shooting of Michael Brown to do a social biography video for a capital case, and captured photos that tell a story of police power, political corruption, and a community left to fend for themselves.
In a neighboring town to Ferguson, called Pine Lawn, police are perceived by many as an armed force of a corrupt mayor. In order to ensure his presence is felt, the mayor puts his name on all police vehicles. On the frontside of the van it also reads, “This is a zero tolerance community.”