Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
The United States imprisons more people per capita than any other country in the world by far—with Russia and Rwanda a distant second and third. There 2.3 million Americans behind bars, with a new prison or jail opening every week. Mass incarceration has destroyed lives, ripped apart families and communities, and depleted needed public resources. Layer these staggering numbers on top of the racial disparities of who is sent to prison and it’s no surprise that many consider defeating mass incarceration as the civil rights mandate of our time. If current incarceration trends persist, one out every three black males born today will go to prison.
The problem has become so deep, and the numbers so large, that a national examination of the logic and ethics of mass incarceration is finally taking place. Across the United States, policing techniques are under scrutiny, mandatory sentencing laws are being challenged and overturned, and a “tough on crime” stance is no longer unquestionably embraced. And yet despite agreement by historians, policymakers, civil rights leaders, and others that a “mass” movement is needed to end mass incarceration, such a movement has not yet materialized as families and communities have struggled to find accessible entry points through which to lead and engage in a transformation. Indeed, despite the wealth of organizing capacity marginalized communities rely on to fix schools, hold police agencies accountable, petition for public green space, and much more, when it comes to the justice system, most are left hoping for a better-than-average lawyer. There simply does not exist an organized constituency for a better justice system.
In addition, today’s criminal justice reform efforts focus on one’s entry into the system (for example, police practices like racial profiling and stop-and-frisk) or on re-entry post-incarceration, with very little attention paid the court system itself. As a result, defendants face their charges unnecessarily alone and with a feeling of powerlessness. Court language and norms remain exclusionary, and leave little room for empathy. Public defenders are infamously overworked, under-resourced, and often ill equipped to effectively represent the huge caseloads they manage. Very few have relationships with the communities they serve. And by and large, many of the practices that contribute to mass incarceration in the first place have gone unchallenged by the people with the most at stake.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Raj Jayadev founded the A.C. Justice Project to give citizens facing charges a stake in their justice system and provide pathways for them to make it work better. His idea is straightforward yet transformative: coalesce into a movement those facing incarceration, their families and communities, and the attorneys who represent them. The staggering numbers of Americans behind bars – 1 out of every 100 – share one thing in common: They all got there through the same delivery system, US criminal courts. Through what Raj calls “participatory defense,” ordinary citizens become the changemakers that shift case outcomes and then transform the agents and institutions of the courts themselves. The irony of mass incarceration is that the ballooning numbers of those locked up are simultaneously swelling the ranks of the movement that can bring it to an end.
Participatory defense begins at the level of individual cases. Families and friends of those accused of a crime become extensions of the legal defense team – scouring police reports, discussing defense strategy, creating mitigation material (including creative new tools like social biography videos), and maintaining a presence in the courtroom. This immediately gives public defenders, who are typically overwhelmed with their caseloads, room to explore options other than the quickest path to a plea deal. Such community involvement has dramatically reduced the incidence and duration of prison sentences.
At a broader system level, participatory defense represents a set of guiding principles and actions that any community in America can adopt to provide the fair representation guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment but rarely provided in practice. It starts with a fundamentally new relationship between public defenders and their client communities. Indeed, with 8 in 10 Americans who face criminal charges assigned a public defender, improving public defense is perhaps the least talked about yet most significant way to reduce incarceration rates. As such, Raj and his team identify reform-minded public defenders’ offices nationwide willing to test and champion participatory defense, and help them build meaningful avenues for community involvement. Simultaneously, after years of refining strategies at the local level, Raj is now sharing those strategies with civic organizations of all kinds across the U.S. – from churches to neighborhood associations to local unions – that can be home bases for practicing participatory defense. This elegant spread strategy taps into existing community organizing IQ and channels that latent power to penetrate and reform our justice system. With origins in San Jose, California, the A.C. Justice project is now expanding the field of participatory defense from Missouri to Alabama, Louisiana and New York.