Albert Cobarrubias was the first homicide of 2010 in San Jose, California. But Raj Jayadev remembers the young man as more than a grave statistic.
Cobarrubias, who had just graduated from San Jose State University, aspired to be a lawyer for the underserved. He was also volunteering with Silicon Valley De-Bug, a grassroots advocacy and storytelling nonprofit that Jayadev cofounded.
So Jayadev honored him by creating the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project (ACJP), San Jose’s hub for participatory defense, a model that connects community members with the criminal justice system in hopes of better advocacy for people facing a judge.
He said the supporters of defendants “have been regulated to be on the sidelines” of the court system and can feel powerless.
“Participatory defense essentially tries to make the family an extension of the defense team, a source of information and power for what is almost always a public defender,” said Jayadev, a 2018-2021 Stoneleigh Fellow with the Defender Association of Philadelphia and recently named MacArthur Fellow (or “Genius”). He has become a well-recognized voice in criminal justice reform and has also been a 2010 Soros Justice Fellow, 2015 Leading Edge Fellow and 2017 Stanford Entrepreneur in Residence Fellow.
Families using the model may attend weekly meetings held by a participatory defense hub, where facilitators explain possible techniques. For example, loved ones can put together a packet of evidence — such as photos, certificates and personal testimonies — that details the defendant’s support and opportunities to share in court.
Having supporters at hearings also reminds a judge that the defendant is more than what they were charged with, Jayadev said. Just last week, he attended court with the loved ones of a defendant whose bail was set to $500,000. After seeing the packed courtroom and hearing their story, the judge dropped it to $0.
“What we tell folks at these meetings is that if you do nothing but sit on your hands, the system is going to give your loved one time served,” he said. “But if you engage and participate, you can turn time served into time saved.”
Over 10 years, participatory defense hubs have popped up in 20 other cities and reduced people’s sentences by 4,218 years, Jayadev said. He hopes to implement the model in Philadelphia’s juvenile court system and use the city as a blueprint for other large, urban areas.
Jayadev helped Keir Bradford-Grey to introduce Pennsylvania to participatory defense when she was Montgomery County’s chief public defender. She is now the chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
Mothers in Charge, a local violence prevention and education nonprofit, held its first weekly participatory defense meeting in March. It has educated hundreds of families about the model since, said Valerie Todd, a reentry specialist for the nonprofit, and its participatory defense facilitator.
Loved ones are excited when they learn participatory defense offers them some power in what feels like a helpless situation, she said. She understands that relief: Todd was previously incarcerated on charges like armed robbery.
“This would’ve helped me because I remember my judge saying ‘You have no one in this courtroom supporting you,’” she said. “It’s huge. … Participatory defense is making the judge accountable and making a just decision, as well as showing the judge this is a person we would sacrifice our time for.”
That element of community organizing is what makes the model applicable across the country, Jaydev said. In any city, it allows people afflicted by overwhelming situations to reclaim their stories — similar to the platform he developed with ACJP which seeks justice in honor of a young man who sought to fight for others, but never got the chance.
“Anywhere people are getting locked up is the same fertile ground where participatory defense can grow,” he said. “If it means that people are being targeted, incarcerated and separated from their families and communities, it means that there are then families and communities that have the potential to stop that process and push back.”