The Death of Kalief Browder Exposes the Lethality of the Court System

by Raj Jayadev (This piece originally ran in the Huffington Post)


Kalief Browder

To call the death of 22-year-old Kalief Browder a suicide is not the full truth. Kalief Browder may have hung himself, but he was killed by the brokenness of our court system.

The story of his short life, told by Jennifer Gonnerman in The New Yorker last year, chronicles the horrors of a 16-year-old who was charged for a stealing a backpack, sent to the isolation and brutality of Rikers Island prison for three years, only for the charge to eventually be dropped by the prosecutor. Follow up articles report that Kalief was so profoundly haunted from his mental and physical abuse inside that upon his release, he was hospitalized and told his mother, “I can’t take it anymore.” Ultimately, he hung himself with an air-conditioner cord at his home this June.

The ubiquity of his name online is a different sort of morbid hashtag. It seems social media adds a new name every week of an African-American killed by police, with a hashtag prefix added on. The names we are familiar with — #MichaelBrown, #TamirRice, #FreddieGray — point to obvious culprits and have fueled a new national movement for police accountability and reform. But the #KaliefBrowder name points to a less talked about, yet as his case shows, equally lethal injustice. Continue reading

Appreciating Our Dads On Father’s Day

We couldn’t fit everyone into one picture, but we’d like to take a moment to honor all the amazing ACJP fathers whose love we get to witness every week.  Time and time again, we’ve heard dads say “I’m fighting for my family.” And that powerful love carves paths that break through the justice system’s walls.  We honor you today on Father’s Day.fathersday


Check out the latest piece by Jonathan Rapping of Gideon’s Promise

rapproAs the nation finally awakens to the reality of our broken criminal justice system, a long overdue conversation about how to reform it has emerged. But the solutions being proposed are destined to fall short, as they focus exclusively on changing policies while the challenge demands a transformation of hearts and minds. Until we recognize the need to tackle the problem of culture, and focus on how we can build a movement to change it, equal justice will remain an illusion.

The assumptions driving our current criminal justice system have been forged by a narrative honed over four decades that has cast poor communities of color as dangerous and persuaded us to adopt policies that made it easier to monitor, control, and punish these other-ized populations. Continue reading

David Bornstein’s New York Times Column on Participatory Defense

We were very grateful for David Bornstein’s thoughtful and comprehensive article on the growth and potential of participatory defense. His New York Times column is called “Fixes, which looks at solutions to social problems and why they work.” Check it out!

29fixesWeb-blog480Guiding Families to a Fair Day in Court

…Today, Jayadev says, when a loved one is arrested, the most that many families feel they can do is hope for a good lawyer. Participatory defense expands their sense of agency. And if the goal is to build the political will to end mass incarceration, he says, “This seems like the most natural mass movement building approach — because it is about people seeing their own power in their own communities, as intimate as the fate of their own families.” CLICK HERE TO READ MORE>>>

ICYMI: New York Times Feature on Our Social Biography Videos

In case you missed it, De-Bug/ACJP was featured in a front page story in the New York Times for our social biography video concept. Check it out:

A Flattering Biographical Video as the Last Exhibit for the Defense


GILROY, Calif. — About 3,000 miles from New York, members of a camera crew gathered around Anthony Quijada, trying to do for their not-famous, not-rich client what some high-priced lawyers are doing for theirs in New York courts: Make a video that can keep him out of prison.

Lawyers are beginning to submit biographical videos when their clients are sentenced, and proponents say they could transform the process. Defendants and their lawyers already are able to address the court before a sentence is imposed, but the videos are adding a new dimension to the punishment phase of a prosecution.

Judges “never knew the totality of the defendant” before seeing these videos, said Raj Jayadev, one of the people making the video of Mr. Quijada, who lives in this Northern California city of about 52,000 people. “All they knew was the case file.” CLICK HERE TO GO TO FULL NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLE>>>

Video of the Moment Arthur Erased His Name

This is Arthur erasing his name from our weekly ACJP meeting. His dad Kenny would add his name up on that whiteboard for years. Last Sunday, Arthur came home from prison after eight years, having beaten a life sentence due to Prop.36, and erased his name. It is the one ceremony we have at our meetings — erasing the name means a family has won the freedom of their loved one.

We had only known Arthur through his letters from prison, and his stories from his father Kenny —  that he was a great son and looked out for his brothers.  Every Sunday Kenny would come to De-Bug to help think through Arthur’s case.  In 2006, Arthur agreed to a deal after he was told that if he pled guilty, his brother — one of the codefendants in the case — would be released.  He thought he would be serving somewhere around 8 years.  When the Judge handed down a life sentence during his court hearing, everyone in the courtroom was stunned.  That was the first time Arthur or his family had even heard of ‘life’ being on the table.  So when Kenny first came to De-Bug in 2008, they were still reeling from the pain of losing their son to prison, even though it had already been 2 years. But with the support of his community, Kenny — on the outside — and Arthur on the inside — worked to undo his case.  On Sundays, Kenny and the De-Bug team would lay out 4- inch binders of paperwork to help construct possible ways of appeal.  We met with his appellate attorneys, wrote back and forth to Arthur, even met with decision-makers to find openings.  Meanwhile, Kenny and Arthur held strong — working through depression and a host of health issues that Arthur faced inside the prison.  Then when Prop 36 passed in November 2012, a glimmer of hope came.  Arthur was contacted by the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s office who represented him at his resentencing.  Kenny collected letters of support that demonstrated Arthur’s network that would give him a solid reentry plan, and last year, a judge agreed to release Arthur back to his community.  Check out this Time Saved Party video, where Kenny talks about the day he found out his son had an “out date.” On May 5th, he came home.  On May 31, 2015 — 7 years after Kenny first walked into the doors of De-Bug — Arthur walked in with him.  Submission Post by Charisse Domingo


The Story of How Participatory Defense Came to Be

We’ve told this story at dinner tables, conferences, and courthouse hallways. Here is the story of how participatory defense came to be…

(A participatory defense meeting from 2009 at Silicon Valley De-Bug

(A participatory defense meeting from 2009 at Silicon Valley De-Bug

This is the story of Participatory Defense – a community organizing model for families and communities to impact the outcome of cases of their loved ones and change the balance of power in the courts.

Eight years ago, we started doing community organizing around police accountability. We knew how to march, rally, hold press conferences. But when a case hit the most critical stage – the courts, we didn’t know how to flex that organizing power. Ironically, we were relinquishing the strength of collective action at the time it was most needed – when a case hit the judicial process. Even though many of us were critical of the courts, there was an unspoken belief from many that if you weren’t a lawyer or a judge, you couldn’t effect change. Our experience was not unique. Across the country organizations, churches, support systems, who otherwise could have impacted the courts, reflexively backed off as the system did what it wanted with our community members. The lack of engagement in courts results in over 2 million people currently incarcerated nationally. Of those locked up, over 90% of them got there by taking a plea – meaning they never had their “day in court” as we see on TV.

And while there was a growing movement for criminal justice reform, it had mainly focused on the first point contact – police, or conditions in prisons, or re-entry programs when people got out. But the delivery system to the mass incarceration – the judicial system – had been a blindspot of the movement.

We decided the courts, just like any other public institution, should not be insulated from community organizing efforts of those it impacts. So our families penetrated the court system.

And as it turns out, those facing charges did have atleast one advocate by their side – public defenders. All we knew about them was that they were overloaded with cases, under-resourced, and often felt isolated as well. One of our co-founders Aram James, who was also a retired public defender, encouraged us to build with the attorneys representing loved ones in the cases. Plus, since they represent over 80% of those facing a criminal charge in this country, a statistically undeniably way to effect change in the courts, and prevent incarceration, was by bolstering their ability to advocate. If they were the rock David uses to bring down Goliath, we needed them to be as powerful of a weapon as they could possibly be.

We starting holding weekly meetings for families who’s loved ones faced charges. Families would come, share the status of the case, and then the group would come up collectively with tangible ways family and community support could impact the outcome of the case. Every week, families would engage in a range of activities to help their loved one such as – dissecting police reports, securing investigatory material, producing social biography packets and videos that could be used for sentence or charge reduction, and having a presence in the courtroom so prosecutors, juries, and judges knew they’re actions were being watched and held to account.

We never called our meetings “legal clinics” or used the word “client” because we wanted to make clear that this participatory defense model was not about the person receiving a better service, it was about becoming the agent of change themselves. We rotate facilitators, so families who first started coming for their own family members, end up leading the meetings as well. It is a horizontal space – half support group, half strategic planning session. As organizers, our most important barometer is not only the outcome, but how the person is transformed in their sense of power and agency.

At first, public defenders weren’t sure what to make of us. Some thought we were just trying to watchdog their work. But when they saw how our approach led to families becoming resources for their work and even extensions of the defense team, they started embracing the model. They too, did not have to feel alone or overwhelmed. Now they refer people to our meetings. We didn’t have a name for our meetings for a long time, we just called them Sunday meetings. Then in the beginning of 2010, Albert Cobarrubias, a volunteer and dear friend, passed away, just months after his graduation from San Jose State. We decided to name the meetings after him, so people would hear his name when they took a step forward for justice. Plus, we knew Albert would be with us all as families and communities fought to keep their loved ones home. So we called those meetings at De-Bug, the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project.

As more people started attending the meetings, we thought that if we wanted more systemic change, we needed more groups doing this, rather then just us. If our model was going to have larger impact, the goal isn’t to show we were unique, but rather just the opposite – to show that others could do it as well.

So we started training community touchstones on how they can support a member, congregant, or loved one. Now there are weekly participatory defense meetings in places like churches and youth centers. Regardless of the place, we have one ceremony at these meetings. While fighting a case, families write the name of their loved one for whom they are advocating for on our white board every week. For the other families in the room, it is a name they get to know through someone’s mother, father, brother or sister. But when a family wins a case, and their loved one comes home – that person who has been in custody, erases their name. It is a special moment, particularly for families who are just starting the process and now know there is a finish line for them as well. When those families first came to a meeting, they were told by the facilitator that the court system, without any intervention, would give their loved one “time served”, meaning time incarcerated. But with family and community engagement they can turn “time served” into “time saved” — meaning the loved one home instead of locked up.

After 8 years, we have seen numerous families turn potential “time served” into “time saved” in the form of acquittals, charges dismissed, and sentence reduction. In fact, when we reviewed our cases, and totaled the numbers, our families have built over 1800 years of time saved from incarceration through participatory defense.

And the personal cases led to policy campaigns as well. After being able to look under the hood of the court system, families were able to advocate for changes such as ensuring representation in the courts, to improving conditions in the jails. And the communities understanding of the public defender and how to partner with their office was transformed through the process.

Now we are going to communities across the country, meeting with families, organizers, pastors, public defenders on how they can start participatory defense in their regions.

We are clear that participatory defense is not an invention, it is a naming of an instinct. One that exists as a mom sits steadfast in a courtroom pew, or with a pastor who is writing a character letter the night for a sentencing. Those instincts can become actions, and those actions can become a practice. A practice that may make historic changes in the court system and the movement to end mass incarceration by activating the participation of families and communities.

“As a Mother of Three Black Sons, Thank You Marilyn Mosby”

ACJP Organizer Gail Noble writes a commentary on what State Attorney Marylin Mosby’s decision to charge the officers involved in the murder of Freddie Gray means to her as a mother of three black sons.


When I heard the six police officers in Baltimore were being charged, I was shocked and overjoyed. “Yes!” I said with fists in the air. I thought about Freddie, the severe pain I heard in his voice when he cried out. I remembered the images of his limp body as they dragged him to the van. If officers are that blind to a person’s welfare, they deserve to be charged and I pray they are convicted.

As a mother of three black sons, hearing State Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s words were especially vital for me. Everyday, I fear for my three sons living in an America which is plagued with racism and police brutality. I have had my sons call me saying, “Mom, I just got pulled over by the police for no reason,” more times than I care to remember. Or, “Mom, I was walking and the police rolled up on me and asked where was I going, and let me see your ID.” Each call, I would feel frustrated, mad, and powerless. My only recourse, for safety reasons, is to teach them how to act when this happens. I would tell them, “You don’t give them a reason to arrest you even when they talk about you and disrespect you, because they are looking for any little thing to provoke you.” It frustrates me that this is the lesson I would have to teach them for their own protection.

When my sons go out at night, my greatest fear is to hear the phone ring. When they call, the first words out of my mouth are, “What’s wrong?” I live in constant fear they will be stopped by the police, and that something will go wrong. The police will say they moved too quickly, or reached for something, or they looked like some dangerous suspect — and then some tragedy. One time one officer said he was suspicious of my oldest son because his car was big enough to carry weapons. This is the type of rationale you have to deal with when you are the mother of three black sons.

That’s why when I listened to Marilyn Mosby, I heard her as a mother. State Atttorneys, or District Attorneys, are supposed to be about justice, but a lot of them have lost their way. Marilyn prepared for this case, she hired independent investigators, along with her department’s investigators. She was looking for the truth, found it, and acted upon it.

Marilyn Mosby did her job, the way I wish all District Attorneys would. She didn’t cover up the carelessness and the inhumane way Freddie was treated by the polices officers. I felt her confidence, her conviction, her fearlessness, and strength for justice. District Attorneys who have lost their way, study Marilyn Mosby and start to practice true justice in your communities.

VIDEO RECAP: Building Partnerships in Participatory Defense With Communities Across the Country

In March of 2015, De-Bug/ACJP went to several communities across the country to share the participatory defense approach, and learn from innovative public defenders, inspiring organizations, and courageous families. We shared in ballroom hall forums, gave trainings on intervention points in cases, talked through setting up participatory defense meetings, sat in courtrooms, brainstormed with folks at their homes over dinner, and went behind the scenes of law offices and movement-makers. Here is a short video snapshot of some great partners we met in St.Louis, Birmingham, and Philly. Much respect and gratitude to the Community Law Office of Jefferson County, Arch City Defenders, M.O.R.E, Montgomery County Public Defender’s Office, the One Love Movement, and everyone else we got a chance to build with!