Protect Your People: A Public Defender’s Reflection on Participatory Defense

Special thanks to Santa Clara County Public Defender Sajid Khan for speaking at our national Social Biography Media Boot Camp! It was an intensive five day training, where 15 different participatory defense hubs from all over the country learned how to produce social biography packets and videos. Sajid came to talk about how public defenders have used these end products, and other ways public defenders and communities can work together to prevent incarceration. He wrote a short reflection after the gathering that we wanted to share. Thank you Sajid!


Santa Clara County Public Defender Sajid Khan addresses participatory defense hubs at the Social Biography Media Boot Camp held at the Google Space in San Francisco, CA May 18-22nd.

Thank you to Charisse Domingo and the beautiful folks at Silicon Valley De-Bug for hosting me on Friday to talk to their Participatory Defense partner groups from places like Philadelphia, North Carolina and Tennessee.  As I understand it, “Participatory Defense” is a movement to empower families and community partners of those ensnared in the criminal justice system to contribute to the defense of their loved ones, essentially expanding the legal team beyond just the public defender to achieve the best outcomes possible for the accused.  

At this inspiring summit, I spoke about how families and community activists can work with public defenders to shine a light on our clients’ humanity and potential, to tell their stories of trauma and to force the courts and prosecutors to look at our clients’ context and not just their conduct. Family and community members can help gather pictures, develop family trees, provide contact information for family members and neighbors, collect school and medical records, tell childhood stories and give us access to their homes and neighborhoods to help build and illustrate the tapestry of our clients’ lives.

At transfer and sentencing hearings and during presentations to DAs and Judges, instead of only focusing on what our clients did and how much time they should get, we will, through these efforts, detail who they are and what has happened to them and demand system responses that help heal the roots of their crimes and honor their potential for redemption. By doing so, we chip away, case by case, client by client, at our system of mass incarceration.

Thank you to Armando Franco, one of the attendees, for this gift (pictured below): a pen portrait of me as I presented. I, unlike my usual proper and reserved self, let some expletives fly as I voiced my frustration with certain criminal justice system participants.


(Read more reflections and writing by Sajid Khan at his Tumblr, and tune into the podcast he and Avi Singh, another Santa Clara County Public Defender, has called Aider and Abettor.)


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