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