Participatory Defense Launches in Durham, NC!

For De-Bug, visiting Spirit House in Durham, NC is like going to a family reunion and meeting cousins you heard of through stories — family who moved, believed, and breathed like you, just in a different part of the country.  Last week, De-Bug organizers Gail Noble, Cecilia Chavez, and Charisse Domingo shared space with amazing organizers from Durham, NC who are holding it down in the community: Spirit House, a cultural-arts and community organizing group fighting mass criminalization; All of Us Or None, a membership-based organization made of formerly incarcerated individuals organizing to transform the system; Southern Coalition for Social Justice, an organization made of lawyers, researchers, and organizers supporting communities of color addressing racial inequities; and Inside Outside, an organization made of families addressing disparate jail conditions in Durham County.  We were brought together by the Hayward Burns Institute’s Community Justice Network for Youth, who promoted the peer exchange among our organizations. We spent two days sharing Participatory Defense strategies and collectively brainstorming how to support each other in our larger movement to end mass incarceration.  We can’t wait to keep building with these dedicated community warriors!  Check out our photos below!


ACJP organizers Cecilia and Gail sharing points of intervention in the criminal justice system that families can use to impact their loved ones’ cases.


De-Bug, All of Us or None, CJNY, and Spirit House organizers head to the Durham County Court to observe first appearance hearings


Etched into the pew in one of the courtrooms. In just the hour we visited and sat in court, there were around 60 people, and 90% were African American.


At the first appearance in Jail Court, familiy members sit behind a glass as they await their loved ones who are brought in from the side. If they want to plead for their family member’s release, they have to speak through a button on the side to the Judge, who then determines bond or other conditions of release. During the time we went, it was all Black women being held, and their family members awaited their fate.


De-Bug ACJP organizer Gail outside the Durham County Detention Facility where we just finished sitting through Jail Court. She is there to work with Durham organizers to transform the experiences of families whose loved ones are facing charges in the system. For Gail, this visit is especially heartfelt, because her father and mother were both born in North Carolina, and this is her first trip back to her roots.

We were so excited to meet Poet, a proud member of All of Us or None who has had negative experiences with the criminal justice system. He will be one of the organizers leading participatory defense meetings in Durham, NC!

We were so excited to meet Poet, a proud member of All of Us or None who had negative experiences with the criminal justice system. He will be one of the organizers leading participatory defense meetings in Durham!


Mama Nia Wilson, Executive Director at Spirit House, leads a deep, honest conversation on generational trauma with participants of their Harm Free Zone. She is a longtime OG at Durham who’s been holding it down for years, and we’re so blessed to build with her.

Taye, an artist and organizer with Spirit House, photographs the first participatory defense meeting in Durham!

Taye, an artist and organizer with Spirit House, photographs the first participatory defense meeting in Durham!


Andrea with All of Us Or None leads our second participatory defense meeting as we strategize on how to get a loved one released after he was just arrested that morning.

First Time Saved Story of 2015! Mom, Attorney, and Community Beats a Life Sentence Through Social Biography Mitigation

Our first Time Saved story of 2015!  When this family came to De-Bug about 2 months ago, the judge in their 16 year old son’s case strongly considered a 6 year commitment away in juvenile prison, based on the recommendation from probation. He originally was facing a life sentence. With his amazing mom Cherisse Bergeron and attorney Monika Loya, we helped put together a mitigation packet that showed his strong local family, church, and community support and made the case for why local time was so much more crucial for his ability to bounce back from a tough life.  

On Wednesday, after reviewing the social biography packet, the judge told him to look into the audience where every seat there was filled with his family and community –including his 2 little brothers. She said “Turn around.” She pointed to everyone. “That’s the reason I’m keeping you here and not sending you away.”  Submission Post by Charisse Domingo (If your organization is interested in getting a workshop on how to make social biography packets, email us!)

Cherisse shows the mitigation packet for her son that demonstrates his challenges growing up, as well as his present community and future prospects.

Cherisse shows the mitigation packet for her son that demonstrates his challenges growing up, as well as his present community and future prospects. (This was taken a week before the sentencing hearing)

Day of court and ready to visit their son and brother.  He will get to see and hug his 2 little brothers for the first time in almost 6 months.

Day of court and ready to visit their son and brother. He will get to see and hug his 2 little brothers for the first time in almost 6 months.

His mom Cherisse proudly wears her "De-Bug The System" shirt. Her love for her son is a testimony to the power of faith in action.  She herself has been through a tough few years, and being able to get through these last 6 months and being the instrumental force in her son's case has been part of her life's journey.

His mom Cherisse proudly wears her “De-Bug The System” shirt. Her love for her son is a testimony to the power of faith in action. She herself has been through a tough few years, and being able to get through these last 6 months and being the instrumental force in her son’s case has been part of her life’s journey.

San Mateo County Juvenile Private Defender Monika Loya and Mom Cherisse Bergeron

San Mateo County Juvenile Private Defender Monika Loya and Mom Cherisse Bergeron after court — they make a powerful team!

Family Wins Historic Dismissal of Juvenile Case in Santa Clara County

courtney2This mom and daughter first came to De-Bug about 4 years ago, when she was only 16 years old, and facing charges in juvenile court.  Her mom kept insisting that her daughter did nothing wrong, and despite her family, community, and her attorneys fighting for her, the courts nevertheless put her on probation. However, they never gave up in pursuing justice. This week, she became the first person ever locally to win a dismissal of her juvenile case through a 782 code, making Santa Clara County legal history in the process.  “I put off so many job applications because I didn’t know how to move forward,” she says. But because of her unwavering family and community support, as well as great advocacy from her public defender, this family has triumphed.  “I couldn’t give up, because I had people — especially my mom — that wouldn’t give up.” — Submission Post by Charisse Domingo


1377 Years of “Time Saved”: New Way to Quantify How Organizing Impacts Court Cases

In court systems across the country, the term used to show that someone has done their time of incarceration is called “Time Served.”  At De-Bug, we transform that term, and that time, to “time saved” through family and community organizing to change the outcome of cases. We quantify the amount of “Time Saved” by looking at the maximum exposure of incarceration based on the charges against an individual when they first approach us and subtract the total amount of incarceration time received by that individual after the family has intervened in the case through our organizing model. Sometimes charges get beat completely, some times charges get reduced, sometimes sentences get lowered as a result of the work. Continue reading

Mother’s Day Math: Mother’s Love > The System

We couldn’t fit all the ACJP mothers in one picture, but here are a few of them whose strength fuels us all to keep going, to keep fighting.  They come every Sunday or Tuesday — after their visits with their children in jail, or even way after their children’s court cases are over — to then uplift other family members who have faced the same struggles.  Happy Mothers’ Day to these Moms!  Submission Post by Charisse Domingo

Time Saved: 3 Families Support Each Other to Beat a Collective of 41 Years to Life in Prison


We had a powerful meeting this Sunday at ACJP, where three families all successfully resolved their cases through mutual support. They didn’t know each other a month ago, but will be forever united in their life stories. They live in different counties, even speak different languages at home.These images are a part of ACJP‘s “Time Saved” Series, documenting the stories, and amount of time saved from incarceration, due to community intervention in court cases. Submission and Photos by Charisse Domingo.

Click here to see the full story.  

Sentencing Project and First Focus Publication: “Children in Harm’s Way”

Screen Shot 2013-02-06 at 3.57.27 PM“It was the policy of the San Mateo County juvenile probation department to report youth to immigration enforcement officials regardless of the nature of their juvenile offense and before youth had even seen a juvenile court judge or met with their defense attorneys. In Yareli’s case, she had no idea that she was talking to an ICE official. She explained, “My probation officer asked me ‘do you have papers?’ I said no. I can’t lie to them, so I said no. Then they told me to go talk to this person. He just started asking me questions, and at  the end he said, ‘By the way, I’m an ICE agent.”

…The underlying purpose of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate youth and protect the community. In California, for example, the goals of the juvenile justice system include providing treatment that is in the minor’s best interest, rehabilitating youth, and preserving and reuniting families. Reporting youth to ICE directly undercuts these goals because it renders youth vulnerable to physical and emotional harm, undermines their prospects for rehabilitation, weakens family ties, and violates the foundational principles of the juvenile justice system to help youth successfully transition into adulthood.”

— Excerpt from “Two-Tiered System for Juveniles”, co-written by Angie Junck (ILRC), Charisse Domingo (De-Bug), and Helen Beasley (CLSEPA)

The Sentencing Project and First Focus released a new publication this month called “Children In Harm’s Way” that highlights the experiences of those caught in the crossroads of the criminal justice, immigration, and child welfare systems.  One of the articles, “Two Tiered System for Juveniles” was co-authored by Charisse Domingo with Silicon Valley De-Bug’s ACJP, along with Angie Junck from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Helen Beasley from Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto.  This article highlights the practice of juvenile ICE holds in San Mateo County and the local coalition’s efforts to stop it.  It also features the story of an ACJP family who directly experienced the effects of this policy, and won her case through family, community and legal support.  To read their article and the full report, click here….

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Harnessing the Power of Community Through Mitigation Packets: How Letters Beat a Juvenile Hall Sentence

photo[1]A San Mateo family came to ACJP about 3 months ago after their attorney had heard us present to the Juvenile Private Defenders in San Mateo County on our work on mitigation.  It was after their 17 year old son had taken a plea in Santa Clara County but then was transferred to San Mateo County to decide on his disposition. This is usually the case for juveniles who allegedly commit a crime in one county but do not live in that county.  In this case, the crime took place in Palo Alto but they live in Redwood City.

They were told at an initial meeting by a probation officer in San Mateo County that he was recommending 30 days in-custody time for the young man. Not only could this be harsh for him, but it would expose him to potentially devastating immigration consequences.  His attorney had been impressed by the number of people who showed up to his first hearing in San Mateo, and she wanted ACJP to help in capturing that community support in order to help convince the judge for a different disposition.

In a short amount of time, we gathered letters from different mentors in this young man’s life — adults who had always seen him as intelligent, gentle, and carried leadership potential.  These words describing him were in many of those letters. Many of them said they didn’t know what to say, but it turned out they just didn’t know how to begin.  So we would say, “Just write about him — write your observations, how long you’ve known him, and what kind of support you think you can give him.”  In came a flood of letters — compassionate, heartfelt.  One woman who went to church with him and the family wrote, “I would ask the court to show him mercy, not because he doesn’t need to see the consequences of his actions, but because I don’t believe he’s too far gone to be helped and supported to make better decisions. That light is still in him. When I see him now, he’s still the same kid who’ll make an extra batch of French fries when company’s over; who’ll show up early or stay late to vacuum, decorate a room or load cars after church events. I know there’s a lot of good in that mind and heart of his and a very bright future ahead, if he can be made to see that.”

When this young man’s hearing came on Friday, the attorney prepared him and his family for the worst.  To the 12 family and community members who showed up in support, she said that she would still plead for an out of custody placement, especially pointing to the large community support that was willing to step up for him.  By the time she had met with the District Attorney and Probation Officer, she was beaming with excitement.  They had agreed to offer him a program that not only would be out of custody, but would remove his felony plea as soon as he completes a year of good behavior.  It was something even the attorney didn’t anticipate.  The letters — especially the one from his parents — made the difference.

As a result, this young man is home, and he can continue on with pursuing his dreams in life — of going to culinary school, fixing his immigration matters.  Being able to harness the power of community in a “packet” helps decisionmakers see the young person in front of them as more than just their case file.  We believe the justice system is ultimately colored by our own human eyes and sentiment, and being able to show the fullness of someone’s life and community not only changes the outcome of a case, but transforms the system as a whole. — Submission Post by Charisse Domingo

ACJP Presents on Mitigation to the San Mateo County Juvenile Private Defenders Program

Two weeks ago, De-Bug’s ACJP presented to the San Mateo County Juvenile Private Defender’s Program on our work in supporting families develop mitigation packets.  This presentation was part of a longer session on San Mateo County Probation’s ICE referral policy for youth.  Coordinated by Adam Wells Ely, a juvenile private defender who has been active in local efforts to stop this referral practice, De-Bug co-presented with Helen Beasley from Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto and Alison Kamhi from the Stanford Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. A key part of the change advocated by the San Mateo County Coalition for Immigrant Rights to the Probation Chief’s policy on referring youth to immigration was that before a probation officer was to make a referral to ICE, the juvenile private defender and the youth’s family were to be notified so they could present mitigating information that can help the PO to decide otherwise.  Thus, being able to gather that information by the team of people supporting their loved one can be key to helping stop an ICE referral.

De-Bug’s ACJP shared different examples of mitigation packets we developed that resulted in families being able to change the outcome of their loved ones’ cases — from a packet of letters, to photo diaries, to a mini-documentary video that helps the court system see the full life of the person behind the case file.  Thanks to San Mateo County’s Private Defender’s Program for acknowledging the role and value of community in advocating for loved ones in the courts! 

East Palo Alto City Council Passes Resolution Against Juvenile Detainer Requests

On Tuesday, October 2, 2012, the East Palo Alto City Council unanimously adopted a resolution to urge the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and Probation Chief Stu Forrest from referring youth to federal immigration officials.  San Mateo County continues to be one of the highest referring counties in California to ICE, even after the Department changed their policy in January 2012 after discovering they were referring youth under the jurisdiction of an outdated law.  De-Bug’s ACJP has been part of the San Mateo County Coalition for Immigrant Rights that continues to assert that all youth, regardless of their citizenship status, should be rehabilitated — and that the threat of deportation should not be in anyone’s pocket as a potential for punishment.  Our youngest ACJP member, a 14 year old from Redwood City, experienced 42 days in immigration detention before being reunified with his parents.  He is still fighting his deportation case, but the lapse in services has impacted him tremendously — as now he has to also deal with the trauma of being separated 3,000 miles away from his family.  We applaud the EPA City Council for standing with this young man and sending a message that an entire community has his back.  — Submission Post by Charisse Domingo

To read the resolution, click the image below….