Participatory Defense

A sign reading, "District Attorney, Private Defender, Mediation, InterpreterFools Mission introduced a new program this year called Participatory Defense (PD). Based on the pioneering work of Raj Jayadev and Silicon Valley De-Bug in San Jose, Participatory Defense uses innovative methods to bring community organizing and advocacy into the criminal justice system.

Over the past year and a half, we’ve surprised ourselves with the success of this creative approach to supporting defendants who face civil or criminal charges. A homeless man charged with falsifying the registration sticker on the vehicle he slept in saw his charges dropped and thousands of dollars in fines reduced. A Latino youth who got into a wrestling match with a Sheriff’s Deputy over a misunderstanding was sentenced to probation with no jail time. A young mother with a DUI tapped into community support to stay clean and sober, regained custody of her daughter, and served three days in the Sheriff’s Work Program instead of going to jail. Typical sentences for first offenders in cases like this range from six months to a year.

How it works

CircleFamily members and friends of defendants gather together to work with public defenders on their cases. In a regular rhythm of community meetings, they analyze documents and create social biography packets that include photos, character letters, videos, grades, certificates, pay stubs—anything that reveals the defendant’s good qualities, the support of loved ones, and ties to the community. The packets enable judges, prosecutors, probation officers, and the public to see a human being rather than merely a case number or a list of charges.

As with all Fools Mission programs, we learn together by doing. And the things we are learning together build character, confidence, and self-esteem in the defendants, their families, and those who accompany them through their stressful experience of the criminal justice system.

According to PD founder Raj Jayadev, “The participatory-defense model was first developed in San Jose, California 10 years ago, and is now practiced in over a dozen locales across the country, from California to New York to North Carolina. Nationally, the practice has cut 3,350 years from offenders’ sentences.” Mr. Jayadev now consults with communities who are starting their own Participatory Defense programs.

Get involved!

If you are interested in over-incarceration and the disproportional incarceration of people of color, you are invited to learn more. For more information, follow the links listed at the end of this article or contact Thomas Atwood at

A retired lawyer’s testimony

400_County_Center_hojDavid Vallerga, one of our founding fools, wrote these observations about our PD program:

What happens in court when people without access to wealth and power show up with community members to support them, and a fully prepared social biography packet?

Lots of things, all good:

GOOD THING #1. Defendants can be seen as the fully worthy human beings that they in fact, are. This “equal human worth” is a core principle of Fools Mission. Without it the “system” separates people into “worthy and unworthy.” The “worthy people” get options, assistance and treatment if needed. The “unworthy people” get sent to jail. It’s just so much easier to punish someone who is “unworthy.” Those in charge of punishment can fill the scorecard with people that they punished and the “system” is doing its job. Not that it solves anything, of course. In fact, punishment often makes things worse. But then the system can be presented with an unworthy person with a PRIOR. We can double down on the punishment! Of course, it takes money to punish people, but the taxpayers want to pay for punishment, don’t they?

GOOD THING #2. The taxpayers can save that money. Maybe it could be used for counseling, treatment or education. Maybe we could help the defendant to the extent that he or she becomes a taxpayer and helps all of us out!

GOOD THING #3. The system becomes more honest. I can say this because I spent nearly 40 years in it. Things often run in a pretty sketchy way. Police reports are incomplete, evidence is submitted that could be prevented. Attorneys, including those from the Private Defender Program, can advise pleas that could have been improved with more information and, last but by no means least, people behave better when they know that others are watching. This is simple human nature. The justice system itself is improved when additional care is exercised.

GOOD THING #4. The defendants and their families know that someone cares. This care goes back into the community and everyone stands a bit taller. People who see a future in their community take better care of themselves and those around them. Positive responses beget positive responses. This happens all the time!

GOOD THING #5. The ignorance of those privileged people “who never knew there was a problem” just goes away. This is such a beautiful “reality check” in this time of tweets, sound bites, false facts and divisive assumptions. We really are all in this together; the process of accompaniment brings it home in a very real way.

GOOD THING #6. Everyone is a winner! There are no guarantees about results, but the process itself helps people feel better and do better. To date we have seen pleas that greatly reduce the impact on the people we accompany. We have seen people receive the respect that they deserve. We have seen heads held higher, all around the circle. We are doing something positive for our community and building those valuable relationships at the same time. It is all very personal, and the “measurable results” can be hard to come by. But it is so very obvious to everyone involved that our assistance, to date, has been important.


Watch Raj Jayadev, Executive Director of Silicon Valley De-Bug, talk about Participatory Defense:

This article by Raj Jayadev tells the story of how Participatory Defense came to be:

The Story of Participatory Defense

This article from The Philadelphia Citizen describes how Montgomery County is taking the methodology to new heights:

Ideas We Should Steal: Participatory Defense

This Atlantic article has compelling descriptions of how Participatory Defense empowers defendants and communities to be their own best advocates:

How Prisoners’ Family Members Can Assist Overworked Public Defenders

This video, which tells the story of Lamar Noble and how his mother Gail rallied the community to support her son and his overworked public defender, is ten minutes well spent. It drives home the message that we have to show up for each other to create justice: