Highlight Reel: 4 Social Biography Videos // 4 Families // 4 Court Systems // 1 Goal — Reunite the Family

Through the Washington Defender Association and the Incarcerated Parents Project, we had the honor to spend a week in Washington state to work with four very different families who had one thing in common — they were each fighting a court system that was trying to keep their families separated, and the most powerful weapon they had to win reunification was the power of their own story. Through their courage they were challenging the criminal court system (Daniel), immigration court system (Gladys), Dependency Court (Brian), and trying to secure a federal prison transfer (Derina and Gina). We spent time with Daniel at the Chehalis Detention Facility, as he tries to win clemency from his sentence which will have him spend the rest of his term in adult prison and away from his young daughter. We sat in the family home of Gladys who is in a immigration detention center facing deportation and being a nation away from her children. We worked with Brian to tell his remarkable story of how he has turned his life around so he can reunite with his two boys that the dependency system is trying to take from him permanently. And we got the opportunity to sit with Darina, a wonderful 7-year-old who is doing everything in her power to get the federal prison system transfer her father from Texas to Oregon, so she could build a stronger relationship with him.

It was a remarkable week. Check out this highlight reel to meet some of the amazing families!

Public Defenders Join Families Who Have Lost Loved Ones to Police Violence at San Jose #FreedomNow Action

On July 21st, San Jose joined a #FreedomNow national day of action with the Black Lives Matter movement. The rally held at City Hall was lead by families who had lost loved ones to police violence. Joining the action were Santa Clara County Public Defenders Jennifer Redding and Sajid Khan, who both spoke about racial injustices they say daily in the court system. Below are Khan’s remarks to the crowd.


Santa Clara County Public Defender gives a speech at the San Jose #FreedomNow Black Lives Matter rally.

My name is Sajid Khan and I’m a public defender here in San Jose.  I grew up and live here in San Jose and went to San Jose High School 20 blocks from here, the same high school that the late Phillip Watkins went to and played football at. His murder by police shook me because I am him and he is me.

As a public defender, the stories we’re here remembering are all too familiar: police intruding in the lives of minorities for no legitimate or necessary reason or not peacefully and appropriately responding to calls for intervention.

I, and we as public defenders, will keep fighting in our county courthouses to ensure that these deaths we’re mourning do not go in vain. Continue reading

How Our Limited Options for “Justice” Around the Brock Turner Sentence Only Punishes Communities of Color (By Charisse Domingo)

As a community organizer who works with families whose loved ones are facing the criminal court system, Charisse Domingo has sat through many sentencing hearings in Santa Clara County — the same court system that housed Brock Turner’s trial and sentence. But unlike the Turner case, the outrage at the court system she has repeatedly witnessed was about how punitive sentences tore apart the lives of families of color. In her essay, she writes while she understands the impulse to recall Judge Persky as an effort to challenge white privilege in the courts, it will ironically only further increase incarceration rates in communities of color.


(Graphic by Adrian Avila)

Like many people, I read Brock Turner’s victim’s statement with lumps in my throat. I teared up at the vivid descriptions of her painful experience. Every word was demanding. I wish I could turn back time for her – back to the Saturday night dinner she enjoyed with her family, pick up the remote and put on the show she was going to watch on tv, open the book to the page she probably dog-eared from the night before, return her to the last moment she remembered feeling safe.  In this future going forward where their fates are forever linked, my hope for her is that one day, her thoughts allow her to float back to a carefree and peaceful place, free from his name. Continue reading

Stanford Law School Graduates Submit Letter to Reconsider Recall Effort of Judge Persky


The following letter was sent to Stanford University’s Professor Michelle Dauber — the law professor leading the recall campaign to remove Judge Aaron Persky. The letter was from 53 graduating Stanford Law students, representing nearly a third of the total class of 180 students.

Dear Professor Dauber,

We are members of the graduating Class of 2016, and we were inspired to write this letter because of your leadership in responding to the Brock Turner rape case. As we bid farewell to the Stanford community we’ve been privileged to be a part of over the last three years, we can’t help but take note of those events and the discussion surrounding it, and we feel compelled to apply what we’ve learned at SLS to weigh in on an aspect of that discourse we find troubling.

First, we are proud of your leading role in advocating for reform of how society responds to sexual violence. Rape and other forms of sexual assault are urgent problems that are too often neglected or obscured by euphemisms, silence, and shame. The best scholars use their expertise to shine light on pressing civic issues like these: they articulate their visions of a more just society, and they engage with policymakers and the public to spur and shape reform. We’ve been privileged to learn at a place where faculty like you take up that mantle.

We’d also like to emphasize our agreement with your goals. We, like you, believe that members of the Stanford community — indeed, of every community — should be doing all we can to confront the problem head on, by preventing sexual violence in the first place, ensuring that those who experience it receive support and healing, and insisting that those responsible face consequences that reflect the seriousness of their actions. We, like you, are disturbed by the six-month jail sentence that Turner received, which appears lenient when measured against the relevant sentencing guidelines, the much-longer sentences many thousands of Americans are serving for less-serious crimes, and the trauma that the target of his assault so bravely described at Turner’s sentencing hearing. And we, like you, are especially troubled by our suspicion that race and privilege explain those discrepancies. Accountability means little when we demand it only from the already-disenfranchised, and the transformative power of mercy is diminished when we reserve it only for the privileged.

At the same time, one aspect of your recent advocacy troubles us: the nascent campaign you have championed to recall Judge Aaron Persky, who sentenced Turner. We have deep reservations about the idea of a judge — any judge — being fired over sentencing decisions that the public perceives as too lenient.

As we’ve learned during our time at the law school, judicial independence is a cornerstone of due process and an essential prerequisite of a fair criminal justice system. Judges are entrusted with immense power over the life and liberty of criminal defendants from all walks of life, and they need latitude to exercise that power judiciously. After decades of mass incarceration driven by mandatory minimums and other punitive sentencing regimes, we believe that judicial leniency is already too scarce, even though we strongly disagree with how it was applied to Turner. And in a world where judges believe they are one unpopular sentencing decision away from an abrupt pink slip, it will only grow scarcer. A high-profile campaign to recall Judge Persky because he showed too much solicitude for a defendant convicted of odious crimes would evoke an ugly chapter of California’s history: when three justices of our state’s highest court were recalled from the bench because they voted to oppose the death penalty, in accordance with the dictates of justice and the constitution as they understood them. Though the values underlying that effort were different from the ones animating the current recall debate, the chilling effect on judicial independence would be the same.

To be clear, our hesitation about a recall campaign does not stem from a belief that Judge Persky’s decision to give Turner a below-guidelines sentence was correct or that his stated justifications for doing so were sound. Many of us, like you, believe that justice called for a stiffer sentence in his case. But we think humility requires us to recognize that we won’t always be able to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate exercises of judicial mercy. If you or we claim the power to make that decision, how can we credibly deny it to anyone else? If we demand that Judge Persky immediately hand over his gavel for acting on his empathy for this defendant, how we can we credibly assure any other judge that her hand need not waver when the human circumstances of a case seem to call for compassion?

This is not an abstract concern: many of us count our work with Stanford’s Three Strikes Project as one of the most powerful experiences we had at SLS. Through the project, we represented clients serving life sentences for non-violent felonies as they petitioned for early release under Propositions 36 and 47 — transformative ballot measures championed by your Stanford colleagues, which have begun to roll back the worst excesses of California’s punitive sentencing laws. In that role, we had to ask county judges like Aaron Persky to grant early release to men and women serving life in prison because the people of California once believed that our clients’ mistakes made them irredeemable. Even when an inmate has made great strides in prison, and even though statistics show that people resentenced under Propositions 36 and 47 pose little danger of recidivism, granting that second chance is a delicate decision that requires courage on the part of judges: they have to bear the risk, however remote, that the petitioner will abuse that mercy in ways that provoke public backlash against their decision.

We believe it would send a powerful message to these judges and others making similar decisions around the country if, while continuing to critique Judge Persky’s sentencing decisions and calling for a different approach in future cases, you abstained from your effort to recall him from the bench and instead focused on other avenues of response and reform. These might include educating future judges and jurors about the realities of sexual assault, or pressing for systemic changes in how these cases are handled. We simply ask that you withhold your support for a recall campaign that would set a dangerous precedent against the exercise of merciful discretion in our criminal justice system.


Akiva Freidlin, Emi Young, Ginny Halden, Jeannie Lieder, Madeleine McKenna, Michael Skocpol, Nick Rosellini, and Vina Seelam (Drafters)


(This letter was also signed by 48 other members of the graduating class.)

Bail or Die: The Choice of a Detained Man in a Broken Jail

When Jeysson Minota bailed out of jail, he didn’t know within a week that he would end up in the Intensive Care Unit at the Valley Medical Center on a respirator with a collapsed lung. He didn’t know that the pain in his chest he felt while in jail that was shortening his breath was actually a growing mass that was stretching his sternum, tearing wires inside of him from a previous operation.

He just knew, as someone who had made it through open heart surgery five years prior, that he needed medical treatment desperately, and he wasn’t going to get it in the Santa Clara County jail.

So on April 11th, 2016 his mother, who works as a security officer, gave $5,000 to a bail bonds company. But that was only the first payment. Minota and his mother owe $32,250 to the bail bonds company.

Though a staggering amount of money, for Minota, the choice to bail out was ultimately not a financial calculation. “I had to get out. The pain kept getting worse. I wasn’t getting any treatment, and I thought I was going to die.” Continue reading

Mothers Drive Effort in San Jose to Stop Direct Filing of Youth Into Adult Court

Wrapping up six weeks of collecting signatures — in front of juvenile hall, the jails, courthouses, at rallies, churches, workplaces, our neighborhoods, our streets, and our homes. Our families and young people are always at the foreground, moving us to act in ways greater than the sum of our experiences. We are honored to join forces with community organizations across California to collect signatures for the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 that will end direct file and reduce incarceration that will allow our loved ones to come home. Let’s get this on the ballot and fight for our families.

This is Veronica, a San Jose mama who stood in front of Santa Clara County juvenile hall collecting signatures til the very end.


Participatory Defense Launches in Memphis with Just City!

Special thanks to our friends at Just City for hosting us in Memphis last week to give participatory defense trainings to their community partners. Just City is a powerful, independent voice to support the individuals, children, and families who are, or have been in contact with, the criminal justice system; to advocate for strong, consistent adult and children’s right to counsel policies; and to accelerate community-driven solutions to the problems presented by the criminal justice system. We are excited to announce they will launch the Memphis participatory defense hub this summer. Here are photos and a little write up from Just City on our first visit! And check out this commentary by one of the organizers we met on how Memphis is marshalling the millennial vote! (PS – Thank you Josh, Allison, Lurene!)


Asst. Shelby Co. Public Defender Rob Gowen shows the community representatives at the training the timeline for a typical felony case in Memphis. Rob is an incredible attorney who works on some of the most challenging cases in the county.


Gail goes through our “Points of Intervention” workshop for families to impact the court process.


Andrew giving a session to the Shelby County Public Defenders at their historic courthouse.


Every item of Just City and De-Bug swag that we could fit into one photo.


Memphis plays an important role in America’s history of civil rights. The Just City folks took us to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is at the Lorraine Museum, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was a moving experience, particularly since we had the opportunity to meet the people in Memphis who are working to fulfill Martin’s dream.

Write up from Just City:

Sometimes, an idea seems so necessary and obvious, you wonder why everyone isn’t it doing it. That’s what some Memphians told us after learning about Participatory Defense. This week, Raj Jayadev, Gail Noble and Andrew Bigelow of De-Bug and the AC Justice Project in San Jose, California, shared one of their approaches to community organizing with local social service providers and public defenders.
Participatory Defense is about de-mystifying the very mysterious and downright frustrating criminal justice system. Raj and company showed us the principles behind their weekly support group that provides comfort, education and advocacy skills for those with loved ones in contact with the system.
Not only does it help families, Participatory Defense also strives to build capacity for overloaded public defenders. One example from these weekly meetings involves participants creating social biography packets for loved ones — scrapbooks of a client’s photos, accomplishments, and experience that can be used to tell the whole story of the person facing incarceration.
Just City is pleased to start Memphis’ first Participatory Defense group this summer.  We join Nashville in this effort, and a Knoxille group is also in the works. We’re proud that Tennessee will join California as the only states with three cities practicing Participatory Defense.



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.

Santa Clara County Scale Tippers — Honoring Attorneys on #PublicDefenseDay

Below are some images of some amazing public defenders from our hometown of Santa Clara County. Of course, this is just a sampling of some of the incredible freedom fighters who walk into our courthouse and advocate for the least heard of our community, with no fanfare. Yet for the person facing an intimidating criminal justice system, these public defenders are arguably the most important person in their lives during that critical moment — the person fighting against a system that is trying to rip them from their families, communities, and lives. Please believe, we have families we care about deeply in our county who are still together because of the work of their pubic defender — parents in their kids’ lives, young people who now have a future instead of a life of prison. Public Defenders are the rock in David’s sling, as families fight the Goliath of the criminal justice system. On National Public Defender Day, the term being used is “tipping the scales” of justice. We have worked with some great public defenders across the country, but we thought it was right to highlight our hometown “Scale Tippers.”


Jessica Smith won Rusty’s freedom from a wrongful conviction that would have cost him his life. This is her walking out of court with Rusty’s mom the day they won.


Besides being part of a team at the ADO that saved a good friend of ours from a life sentence,  Sajid Kahn prevented a 14 year old from doing a life sentence that would have taken most of his adult life. Because of Sajid, the juvenile will still be a youth when he comes home.


Rebecca Kahan won a re-sentencing for Jesus who was initially facing a life sentence without parole. Because of her, he now has a chance of parole, and coming home to his family.


Meghan Piano saved Lisa from a life sentence. Lisa had done 17 years when Meghan got her case. This is Meghan leaving court the day she won Lisa’s freedom, who now lives with her daughter and granddaughter. You can see a video on Lisa and Meghan here.


Ross McMahon worked with DannyRey’s mom and other public defenders to significantly reduce his incarceration, so DannyRey will still be a young man when he comes home, with a full life in front of him.


Andy Gutierrez advocated at community meetings to oppose a San Jose policy that would have allowed landlords to evict tenants who were arrested.


JJ Kapp fought for Will to come home from a life sentence. Will had been incarcerated for 18 years. This is JJ and Will the day after Will’s release, right before they went to lunch to celebrate.