Participatory Defense Launches in Philadelphia

Philadelphia has to be one of the most exciting cities in the country when it comes to community power challenging the daily operations of the courts. Philadelphia has elected a civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner as their next District Attorney, has a head of the Public Defender Office Keir Bradford-Grey who is committed to building community support for those facing court, and the people are taking to the streets for Meek Mill. Changes are happening in Philly that may be a blue print for the rest of the country.

And now, Philadelphia is starting participatory defense. Read this piece in the Philadelphia Citizen “Ideas We Should Steal: Participatory Defense” to see how the community is well-positioned to take the methodology to new heights.

phillyflier(Poster from the first participatory defense forum in Philadelphia.)

The city launched with a powerful public forum on November 30th cosponsored by the Public Defender’s Office and community organizations all doing vital work to keep people out of the system and hold that system accountable. To tell the story of how participatory defense works in different cities, we shared examples of how it got started in San Jose (CA), Nashville (TN) and Montgomery County (PA). From San Jose, Ramon Vasquez shared his testimony of being wrongfully charged with a murder he was totally innocent of, and how his family and community used participatory defense to get charges dropped, and win a factual finding of innocence from the court. His attorney originally wanted him to plea to 7 years. From Nashville, Gicola Lane shared how she co-leads a participatory defense hub as well as runs a community bail fund — and how the two approaches compliment each other. She also shared how she help secure over 20 years of Time Saved from incarceration through their use of a social biography video.

(Ramon and Gicola in Philly showing solidarity with Meek Mill and the movement supporting his freedom.)

From Montgomery County, neighbor to Philadelphia, Heather Lewis and Adrienne Aiken talked about how they have infused participatory defense into their organization CadCom which was doing mainly re-entry and community service work. In that county, since the inception of their first participatory defense, they have launched a second hub — so Montgomery County now has a hub in Pottstown and Norristown.

Before the forum, Ramon, Gicola, and myself went to the local court to get a better sense as to what is happening to community in their local court system. We sat through a number of hearings, including a bail reduction hearing. The hearing exampled what we often see in cities nationally — that their already exists a natural instinct towards participatory defense, and when the model is put into place, these communities can have tremendous impact. In the hearing we saw an attorney was trying to reduce a $500,000 bail amount for his client, who’s mother and daughter were in attendance. The attorney identified the mother and sister, who waved, and let the judge know of their presence. The attorney went on to argue that his client has a child to raise, and family who will aid in him getting to court if necessary. The sister spoke and informed the court that she had a severe medical issue with her kidney, and that her brother was identified as the donor. In fact, her well-being was the main reason he wanted to be out of custody.  She was sincere and incredibly moving. The DA’s response was to acknowledge the care and concern of the family, but then went on to argue that the person had a couple prior Failure To Appears (FTO), and that the family was around then to, and that didn’t stop the FTO. It was a classic response from a DA trying to maintain an out of reach bail amount, and one we had seen in our experience with participatory defense in other cities. Our way of addressing this tactic to minimize the family support, is for the family to be able to 1) Say what has changed in the circumstances since that last contact with the system. 2) Explain the context of the prior Failure to Appear, and why those issues are being addressed. Often times, the FTO had to do with real life issues that would interfere with anyone’s plans if they were in the same shoes — rather then some nefarious action.

So that way the defense attorney has something tangible to use in response. Once the Philadelphia participatory defense hub is rolling, a family like this would be armed with the information to harness their loved for their loved one into freedom. At the end of the hearing, the bail was reduced, and we hope that leads to his freedom and a successful surgery.

The day after the forum, the community had a brainstorming session about how to start participatory defense in Philadelphia. It was incredibly exciting to see the breadth of movement-makers in one room — folks who are starting a bail fund, people working on re-entry, organizations that got a civil rights attorney voted in as DA — all working together to win freedom for the people.
(Family from San Jose, Nashville, Montgomery County participatory defense hubs with the Public Defender Office after a brainstorming session.)

We are excited to see Philadelphia join the National Network of Participatory Defense, where they will be the 18th city to be added to the movement. And we are looking forward to learning from them to inform a national effort to free loved ones and transform the landscape of power in the courts!

(Much love and respect to the community and Public Defender’s Office who hosted our visit!)

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