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← Community-powered criminal justice reform

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Showing Revision 7 created 09/12/2019 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. This is my favorite protest shirt.
  2. It says, "Protect your people."
  3. We made it in the basement
    of our community center.
  4. I've worn it at rallies,
  5. at protests and marches,
  6. at candlelight vigils
  7. with families who have lost loved ones
    to police violence.
  8. I've seen how this ethic
    of community organizing
  9. has been able to change
    arresting practices,
  10. hold individual officers accountable
  11. and allow families
    to feel strong and supported
  12. in the darkest moments of their lives.
  13. But when a family would come to our center

  14. and say, "My loved one
    got arrested, what can we do?"
  15. we didn't know how to translate
  16. the power of community organizing
    that we saw on the streets
  17. into the courts.
  18. We figured we're not lawyers,
  19. and so that's not our arena
    to make change.
  20. And so despite our belief
    in collective action,
  21. we would allow people that we cared about
  22. to go to court alone.
  23. Nine out of ten times --
    and this is true nationally --
  24. they couldn't afford their own attorney,
  25. and so they'd have a public defender,
    who is doing heroic work,
  26. but was often under-resourced
  27. and stretched bare with too many cases.
  28. They would face prosecutors
    aiming for high conviction rates,
  29. mandatory minimum sentences
  30. and racial bias baked
    into every stage of the process.
  31. And so, facing those odds,

  32. stripped away from the power of community,
  33. unsure how to navigate the courts,
  34. over 90 percent of people that face
    a criminal charge in this country
  35. will take a plea deal.
  36. Meaning, they'll never have
    their fabled day in court
  37. that we talk about
    in television shows and in movies.
  38. And this is the untold part of the story
    of mass incarceration in America --
  39. how we became
    the largest jailer in the world.
  40. Over two million people
    currently incarcerated in this country.
  41. And projections that say
  42. one out of three black men
    will see the inside of a prison cell
  43. at some point in their life
    on this trajectory.
  44. But we have a solution.

  45. We decided to be irreverent to this idea
  46. that only lawyers can impact the courts.
  47. And to penetrate the judicial system
  48. with the power, intellect and ingenuity
    of community organizing.
  49. We call the approach
    "participatory defense."
  50. It's a methodology
    for families and communities
  51. whose loved ones are facing charges,
  52. and how they could impact
    the outcome of those cases
  53. and transform the landscape
    of power in the courts.
  54. How it works is,

  55. families whose loved ones
    are facing criminal charges
  56. will come to a weekly meeting,
  57. and it's half support group,
  58. half strategic planning session.
  59. And they'll build a community
  60. out of what otherwise would be
    an isolating and lonely experience.
  61. And they'll sit in a circle,
  62. and write the names
    of their loved ones on a board,
  63. who they're there to support.
  64. And collectively,
  65. the group will find out ways
    to tangibly and tactfully
  66. impact the outcome of that case.
  67. They'll review police reports
    to find out inconsistencies;
  68. they'll find areas that require
  69. more investigation
    by the defense attorney;
  70. and they'll go to court with each other,
  71. for the emotional support
  72. but also so that the judge knows
    that the person standing before them
  73. is part of a larger community
  74. that is invested in their
    well-being and success.
  75. And the results have been remarkable.

  76. We've seen charges get dismissed,
  77. sentences significantly reduced,
  78. acquittals won at trial
  79. and, sometimes, it has been
    literally lifesaving.
  80. Like in the case of Ramon Vasquez.
  81. Father of two, family man, truck driver
  82. and someone who was wrongfully charged
    with a gang-related murder
  83. he was totally innocent of,
  84. but was facing a life sentence.
  85. Ramon's family came to those meetings
  86. shortly after his arrest
    and his detention,
  87. and they worked the model.
  88. And through their hard work,
  89. they found major
    contradictions in the case,
  90. gaping holes in the investigation.
  91. And were able to disprove
    dangerous assumptions by the detectives.
  92. Like that the red hat that they found
    when they raided his home
  93. somehow affiliated him
    to a gang lifestyle.
  94. Through their photos and their records,
  95. they were able to prove that the red hat
    was from his son's Little League team
  96. that Ramon coached on the weekends.
  97. And they produced independent information
  98. that proved that Ramon
    was on the other side of town
  99. at the time of the alleged incident,
  100. through their phone records
  101. and receipts from the stores
    that they attended.
  102. After seven long months
    of hard work from the family,

  103. Ramon staying strong inside jail,
  104. they were able
    to get the charge dismissed.
  105. And they brought Ramon home
  106. to live the life that he should
    have been living all along.
  107. And with each new case,

  108. the families identified new ways
    to flex the knowledge of the community
  109. to have impact on the court system.
  110. We would go to a lot
    of sentencing hearings.
  111. And when we would leave
    the sentencing hearing,
  112. on the walk back to the parking lot
  113. after someone's loved one
    just got sent to prison,
  114. the most common refrain we would hear
  115. wasn't so much, "I hate that judge,"
  116. or "I wish we had a new lawyer."
  117. What they would say was,
  118. "I wish they knew him like we know him."
  119. And so we developed tools and vehicles

  120. for families to tell the fuller story
    of their loved one
  121. so they would be understood
    as more than just a case file.
  122. They started making what we call
    social biography packets,
  123. which is families making a compilation
    of photos and certificates and letters
  124. that show past challenges
    and hardships and accomplishments,
  125. and future prospects and opportunities.
  126. And the social biography [packets]
    were working so well in the courts,
  127. that we evolved it
    into social biography videos.
  128. Ten-minute mini documentaries,
  129. which were interviews
    of people in their homes,
  130. and at their churches
    and at their workplace,
  131. explaining who the person was
    in the backdrop of their lives.
  132. And it was a way for us to dissolve
    the walls of the court temporarily.
  133. And through the power of video,
  134. bring the judge out of the court
    and into the community,
  135. so that they would be able to understand
    the fuller context of someone's life
  136. that they're deciding the fate of.
  137. One of the first social biography projects
    that came out of our camp

  138. was by Carnell.
  139. He had come to the meetings
  140. because he had pled
    to a low-level drug charge.
  141. And after years of sobriety,
  142. got arrested for this one
    drug possession charge.
  143. But he was facing a five-year
    prison sentence
  144. because of the sentencing
    schemes in California.
  145. We knew him primarily as a dad.
  146. He'd bring his daughters to the meetings
  147. and then play with them
    at the park across the street.
  148. And he said, "Look, I could do the time,
  149. but if I go in,
    they're going to take my girls."
  150. And so we gave him a camera

  151. and said, "Just take pictures
    of what's like being a father."
  152. And so he took pictures
    of making breakfast for his daughters
  153. and taking them to school,
  154. taking them to after-school programs
    and doing homework.
  155. And it became this photo essay
  156. that he turned in to his lawyer
    who used it at the sentencing hearing.
  157. And that judge, who originally indicated
    a five-year prison sentence,
  158. understood Carnell in a whole new way.
  159. And he converted
    that five-year prison sentence
  160. into a six-month outpatient program,
  161. so that Carnell could be
    with his daughters.
  162. His girls would have
    a father in their life.
  163. And Carnell could get the treatment
    that he was actually seeking.
  164. We have one ceremony of sorts

  165. that we use in participatory defense.
  166. And I told you earlier
    that when families come to the meetings,
  167. they write the names
    of their loved ones on the board.
  168. Those are names that we all
    get to know, week in, week out,
  169. through the stories of the family,
  170. and we're rooting for
    and praying for and hoping for.
  171. And when we win a case,
  172. when we get a sentence reduced,
    or a charge dropped,
  173. or we win an acquittal,
  174. that person, who's been
    a name on the board,
  175. comes to the meeting.
  176. And when their name comes up,
  177. they're given an eraser,
  178. and they walk over to the board
  179. and they erase their name.
  180. And it sounds simple,
    but it is a spiritual experience.
  181. And people are applauding,
    and they're crying.
  182. And for the families
    that are just starting that journey
  183. and are sitting in the back of the room,
  184. for them to know
    that there's a finish line,
  185. that one day, they too might be able
    to bring their loved one home,
  186. that they could erase the name,
  187. is profoundly inspiring.
  188. We're training organizations
    all over the country now

  189. in participatory defense.
  190. And we have a national
    network of over 20 cities.
  191. And it's a church in Pennsylvania,
  192. it's a parents' association in Tennessee,
  193. it's a youth center in Los Angeles.
  194. And the latest city that we just added
    to the national network
  195. to grow and deepen this practice
  196. is Philadelphia.
  197. They literally just started their first
    weekly participatory defense meeting
  198. last week.
  199. And the person that we brought
    from California to Philadelphia
  200. to share their testimony,
    to inspire them to know what's possible,
  201. was Ramon Vasquez,
  202. who went from sitting in a jail
    in Santa Clara County, California,
  203. to inspiring a community
    about what's possible
  204. through the perseverance of community
    across the country.
  205. And with all the hubs, we still use
    one metric that we invented.

  206. It's called time saved.
  207. It's a saying that we actually
    still say at weekly meetings.
  208. And what we say when a family
    comes in a meeting for the first time is:
  209. if you do nothing,
  210. the system is designed to give
    your loved one time served.
  211. That's the language the system uses
    to quantify time of incarceration.
  212. But if you engage, if you participate,
  213. you can turn time served into time saved.
  214. That's them home with you,
    living the life they should be living.
  215. So, Carnell, for example,
    would represent five years of time saved.
  216. So when we totaled our time saved numbers
  217. from all the different
    participatory defense hubs,
  218. through the work
    in the meetings and at court
  219. and making social biography
    videos and packets,
  220. we had 4,218 years of time saved
    from incarceration.
  221. That is parents' and children's lives.
  222. Young people going to college
    instead of prison.
  223. We're ending generational
    cycles of suffering.
  224. And when you consider
    in my home state of California,

  225. it costs 60,000 dollars to house someone
    in the California prison system,
  226. that means that these families
    are saving their states
  227. a ton of money.
  228. I'm not a mathematician,
    I haven't done the numbers,
  229. but that is money and resources
    that could be reallocated
  230. to mental health services,
  231. to drug treatment programs, to education.
  232. And we're now wearing this shirt in courts

  233. all across the country.
  234. And people are wearing this shirt
  235. because they want the immediacy
    of protecting their people
  236. in the courtroom.
  237. But what we're telling them is,
  238. as practitioners,
    they're building a new field,
  239. a new movement
  240. that is going to forever change the way
    justice is understood in this country.
  241. Thank you.

  242. (Applause)