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.

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