Friday, May 22, 2015

Taking a look at 'Participatory Defense,' A New Trend in Justice Reform

Earlier this month, Montgomery County Chief Public Defender Keir Bradford-Grey was invited to an Innovation Showcase during the American Bar Association’s National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services in California to discuss her department’s efforts to develop a community -oriented indigent defense program.
Montgomery County Courthouse

I spoke with Bradford-Grey last week about her experience.

“The summit was more than I expected,” said Bradford-Grey, adding she left the summit with information about the “creative ways” groups are providing access to justice for under-served communities. “They were leveraging technology in ways that I never believed was possible and as a result I came back with so much more of an open mind about the possibilities of making our system more efficient, more effective and more accessible.”

    Bradford-Grey collaborated with Raj Jayadev, coordinator of the Albert Cobarriubius Justice Project, Silicon Valley De-Bug, who developed the so-called “participatory defense” concept that involves families and communities of those facing criminal charges in the defense process with the hope of gaining fairness and better outcomes from the justice system. The defense concept, which Jayadev developed through his community organization based in San Jose, Calif., is gaining national attention.
    “About seven years ago we started an organizing model that we call participatory defense and what it is is an organizing methodology for families whose loved ones were facing criminal charges or their communities, meaning their churches and neighborhood associations, about how they can have an impact on the outcome of cases of their loved ones that were going through the court process,” Jayadev told me during a recent interview. “Secondly, also have a broader impact on the landscape of power of the court.”
    Jayadev started with weekly meetings, which Jayadev described as “half support group, half strategy sessions,” where families learned how to become extensions of the legal defense team for their family member going through the court system. The meetings are often held in churches.
    “We kind of crafted and honed this practice that we developed from scratch and it started having a lot of impact where we were seeing felonies reduced to misdemeanors, we were seeing families help public defenders beat cases at trial or get charges totally dismissed. We saw sentences being reduced dramatically,” Jayadev recalled, adding families learned that by using their power, rather than sitting idly by on the sidelines, they had a role they could play “and that actually there’s a great potential partnership with public defenders who were often under-resourced and overworked with caseloads.”
    “We found what we think is a really powerful collaboration between impacted communities and public defenders to reduce incarceration and also allow families and communities to be a new actor, to even hopefully, change policies in how local courts work,” Jayadev, a community organizer, added.
Raj Jayadev/ Photo courtesy of Raj Jayadev
    While Jayadev said the idea was independently developed by the AC Justice Project in California the organization developed a partnership with the local public defender’s office in San Jose.
    “The background of the name, the reason why I came up with ‘participatory defense,’ was I was going to a number of indigent defense, public defense gatherings, and it was clear that there was an ambition or a hope by public defender offices, the new guard so to speak, to find a better way to deliver their services,” Jayadev, who is not a lawyer, explained, adding over the years there have been advances in public defense concepts like “holistic and client-centered” defense.
    “But what I saw as a critical missing part and where I thought our work could help reciprocate some of that energy, as all of those advancements were about the behavior and activities of the attorney, and as an organizer my question was how do we identify the activities and the energies that could come from the families, the non-lawyers themselves, who want to engage if only they knew how. So that’s why I called it ‘participatory defense,’” Jayadev said.
    Jayadev now shares the participatory defense approach with public defender offices nationwide at various conferences. That’s how Bradford-Grey learned about participatory defense several years ago and she reached out to Jayadev to assist her in devising a version of the participatory defense model for Montgomery County.
    “The notion of it all is based on what he was doing,” Bradford-Grey said. “I think he is an inspirational person because he is a champion in his own right. He really just wanted to help people. I really have a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
Montgomery County Chief Public Defender Keir Bradford-Grey
Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
     Earlier this year, Jayadev attended a forum at Arcadia University where Bradford-Grey and her staff unveiled her participatory defense plan to community organizations and civic leaders.
    “We had the forum and he spoke to the people we invited,” Bradford-Grey said.
    Bradford-Grey’s hope is that church and civic groups hold community-oriented justice meetings to educate offenders or their loved ones about the criminal justice system and to empower them to dissect police reports, obtain contact information for eyewitnesses, gather medical, mental health and school records, and any other information that could be vital to a person’s defense, thus assisting the public defenders. 
    In addition to collaborating with Bradford-Grey in Montgomery County, Jayadev has worked on developing a pilot program in Birmingham, Ala. Other cities that have shown an interest in the principles of the participatory defense concept include St. Louis, Mo., and Lexington, Ky., Jayadev said.
    Jayadev recently co-wrote a law research paper with several scholars that examines the participatory defense concept and justice reform.
    “It sort of caught fire. The legal community has really responded,” Jayadev said.
    Jayadev said “people were receptive” to the participatory defense concept he and Bradford-Grey discussed during the summit.
    “There’s interest. I think it was exciting for people to see a truly unique collaboration,” said Jayadev, between a forward-thinking public defender’s office and the organization that developed the methodology.
    Jayadev sees a great future for participatory defense.
    “I think what this idea is on track to do is radically change criminal justice as we know it and in turn dramatically reduce mass incarceration by introducing a new actor in the discussion, which are families and communities of loved ones going through the court process,” Jayadev said. “They’re the one agent that has never been asked to participate and by inviting their participation I’m convinced that they have the power to change criminal justice.”
    It was interesting to learn more about this powerful public defense concept. I’ve covered the courts for more than 20 years and participatory defense is one of the most innovative concepts I've seen in criminal defense in a long time.

    Kudos to Jayadev for his innovative approach. I’ll continue to monitor Bradford-Grey’s plan and the grassroots movement’s development here in Montgomery County.

Monday, May 18, 2015

HEADLINE: "Goldilocks" Convicted!

Never thought I’d be covering a trial where “Goldilocks” would be convicted of breaking and entering at the home of the three bears. But that’s exactly what a jury consisting of some sixth graders from the Abington School District determined during a mock trial on Monday at the Montgomery County Courthouse as they participated in an exercise designed to teach them some legal concepts.
    “Kids have lots of options open to them and some of them are thinking that they want to be lawyers. They’ve been studying the law all year as part of the gifted program at Abington School District and they wanted to come to a courtroom,” said Judge Gail A. Weilheimer, who volunteered to host 28 students from Rydal and McKinley elementary schools for the mock trial exercise during some down time in her courtroom. “They’ve been studying the Constitution and the legal system all year and this was their culminating field trip.”
    “They could have just observed a piece of a case, which may or may not have given them a lot of insight, but instead, to have them participate in the trial process it brings it to light for them,” added Weilheimer. “I’m hopeful that for kids who might be thinking of law that this helps them decide this is an option for them.” 
Montgomery County Judge Gail A. Weilheimer/
Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

    The 12-year-old students appeared excited to be in a court of law and they took their roles as prosecutors, defense lawyers, witnesses and jurors very seriously during the mock trial that borrowed characters from the 1800s fairy tale “The Story of the Three Bears” to spin a tale of courtroom drama.
    “Baby Bear’s chair was destroyed and most of his porridge was eaten,” a boy who portrayed Papa Bear testified for prosecutors from the witness box. “We found Goldilocks sleeping in Baby Bear’s bed!”
    With long, blonde hair and blue eyeglasses, the young lady who portrayed Goldilocks, perhaps, should consider a career as an actress because she played her part to perfection.
    “I was tired and so hungry,” she told the student jurors, claiming the door to the home was open and that her hunger was so great she couldn’t resist the porridge.
    “I wish all my clients testified as good as Goldilocks,” quipped defense lawyer Michael John, who volunteered to coach the students arguing the defense case.
    The trial was complete with exhibits, enlarged photos of the house and the chair that broke when Goldilocks allegedly stood on it.
Exhibit during mock trial Commonwealth vs "Goldilocks"

    Assistant District Attorney Rachel Becker volunteered to coach the student prosecutors.
    “The kids are very inquisitive and naturally curious about the whole process and their questions showed great ability to grasp the issues. They’re pretty good at it,” Becker said.
    “It’s been a pleasure. The kids have been fabulous. Their interest and the way they approached it has just been really, really great. They were picking it up pretty well," John added.
    Throughout the exercise, Weilheimer explained the trial process and introduced the kids to various legal concepts. The students got to observe the inner workings of the trial system.  
    Becker, with the assistance of the students, argued to the jurors that Goldilocks “intentionally stood on the chair and caused damage” during a home invasion and should be convicted of theft, criminal mischief and defiant trespass.
    But John and his students argued, “This is about necessity. She needed food, clothing and shelter.”
    When it came time for the student jurors to deliberate, the judge reminded them, “Remember, you are to act respectfully to each other when reaching your verdict.”
    The students ended up convicting poor Goldilocks of theft and criminal mischief and acquitting her of defiant trespass. A student judge, Weilheimer’s son, Ethan, sentenced Goldilocks to two years’ probation and ordered her to pay restitution for the broken chair and the porridge she ate.
    John, trying to keep a straight face, said Goldilocks was “devastated” by the verdict.
    At the conclusion of the mock trial, the judge took questions from the students and some gleefully took a seat on the bench and posed for photographs while holding the judge’s gavel. I’m sure it’s a day that the students will remember for years to come.
    For me, it was a welcome respite from all the usual mayhem that plays out in court.

    Kudos to all who participated in an exercise that combined education and fun.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Limerick Detective Remembers the Victims

Montgomery County Courthouse/ Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
     Last week, Limerick Detective Ernie Morris was lauded during District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman's annual law enforcement recognition ceremony for his months' long child pornography and child sexual assault investigation that culminated in state charges against six offenders and federal indictments against five of the offenders.

   Morris humbly accepted the recognition, realizing it was a great honor. Then, the seasoned detective, in a classy, caring move, took the time to remember the alleged victims involved in the case.

     “It is nice being recognized. It was a lot of hard work and I’m proud of what we did. But you’ve got a lot of kids that are going to take a lot of years, and maybe never, to get over this. So that’s the tough part,” Morris said after the ceremony as he stood on a courthouse staircase with his wife, Christine, by his side.

     Morris recalled a conversation he had with county Detective David Schanes and former county Detective Mary Anders.

     "I remember Dave Schanes and Mary Anders and I driving back from Delaware one time and we sat there and talked about it. And they say when you're in the academy there's going to be cases at some point you're going to remember in your career - I'll remember everybody in this case, probably for the rest of my life," Morris said, the plight of the victims still fresh in his mind.

     Morris said he hopes  to be able to see the victims persevere and overcome the difficult burdens they're carrying as a result of the alleged incidents.
Limerick Det. Ernie Morris and wife, Christine. Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

    "That would be nice," said Morris, the victims obviously taking precedence in his mind over any honor he received.

  If you happen to see Morris around the community, congratulate him on a job well done.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

LAW DAY Honors

     Montgomery County's legal community celebrated Law Day on May 1 with a poignant ceremony in Courtroom A, the ceremonial courtroom.
     Each year, the Montgomery Bar Association recognizes courthouse employees who go "above and beyond" while carrying out their jobs.
     "The Courthouse Employee Award is awarded to a public employee who has provided outstanding service to Montgomery County citizens on a daily basis," Bruce Pancio, president of the Bar Association, told the crowd of more than 100. "The intent is to honor someone who is not not just performing his or her job function but goes above and beyond what the job requires."
     Judge Carolyn T. Carluccio chairs the awards committee and assisted the Bar Association in the selection of employees for the award. This year, the Bar Association selected two courthouse employees for the honor: Mary Boynes, a supervisor in the Clerk of Courts Office, and Margaret "Peg" Carter, administrative assistant to the county's senior judges.
     As Pancio presented Boynes with the award he mentioned that when Judge Carluccio sought recommendations, more than 35 people submitted recommendations on Boynes' behalf. Pancio said he read most of them.
     "Some of the words used to describe Mary were 'helpful, that she volunteers, that she is professional, that she is gracious, that she has an attention to detail and a willingness to help, that people go to her for her professional opinion, for advice,'" Pancio told the crowd. "She is described as the go-to person."
     Boynes, who was accompanied to the ceremony by her husband George, the crier for Judge Steven C. Tolliver Sr., was overwhelmed by the honor and thunderous applause she received.
     "I am surprised and very honored that so many people think so much of me," Boynes, said, her voice cracking with emotion.
Margaret "Peg" Carter (l) and Mary Boynes (r) Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
     Boynes elicited laughter from the crowd when she made a reference to the Academy Awards by adding, "This is truly not the Academy but it is to me. I thank everybody, the bench, and all of my co-workers."
     I visit the Clerk of Courts several times a day gathering information for my news stories and I can attest that Boynes is fastidious and helpful. She certainly knows the intricacies of that very busy office.
     Clerk of Courts Ann Thornburg Weiss noted later that she believes it was the first time that an employee of her office received the annual honor.
     "We were thrilled to learn about it. Mary is very deserving of it. She's a hard worker, she's dedicated and she works very hard. She is, like they said at the ceremony, the go-to person when it comes to people that need help in the Clerks of Courts. She knows her way around and she's a helpful and kind person to everybody," Weiss said.
     Pancio said all of the county's senior judges wrote to Carluccio and recommended Carter for the honor.
     "She takes care of their schedules in Montgomery County and she takes care of their schedules when they leave the county," Pancio said. "Judge Albright called her 'the glue that holds us together.'"
     Carter also was overwhelmed by the honor and halted briefly with emotion as she addressed the crowd.
     "You can call me Peg. I am honored and grateful for this award but I am honored and grateful every day of the week that I am privileged to work with the hardworking senior judges. We have laughter or I get a history lesson. At the very least it's very interesting. And I thank them for being the caring men they are."
     Carter thanked the "courthouse family" she works with everyday, calling fellow recipient Boynes, "my hero."
     It was obvious from the thunderous applause that Carter is well respected and loved here at the courthouse.
     I can think of no one more deserving for this annual honor than Boynes and Carter. If you see Mary or Peg around the courthouse in the days ahead, congratulate them for a job well done.