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Participatory Defense Initiatives Combat Racial Inequities and Empower Community Members

May 8, 2024 Category: Column


This article draws inspiration from a Generocity Community Newsroom hosted in Montgomery County in partnership with the Reuniting Family Bail Fund.  Community members were empowered to speak truth to power and assert their voices. By providing a platform for local voices to be heard, Generocity Newsrooms allow attendees to shed light on critical issues facing their communities and emphasize the importance of reporting on topics that truly matter to the residents of the Philadelphia Region. Generocity Newsrooms are supported by the Lenfest Institute of Journalism.

On Thursday, April 18, 2024, about thirty community members gathered at the Center of Cultural Arts and Technology in downtown Chester, Pennsylvania, to imagine what a free future might look like in their county. Facilitated by the Delco Participatory Youth Hub, established two years earlier to support people navigating Delaware County’s criminal justice system, the event served as a platform for advocates, formerly impacted individuals, and concerned community members. Together, they voiced their opposition to the forthcoming detention center for children in their county, expected to replace the notorious Juvenile Detention Center in Lima, which organizers successfully campaigned to close down in 2021.

During the event, attendees engaged in a thought-provoking exercise centered around a hypothetical scenario involving “Johnny”, who had been arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Before making assumptions about “Johnny’s” outcome, nineteen-year-old Maurice Davis raised his hand and asked what “Johnny’s” race was. His question alludes to the racial bias within the justice system that affects Black individuals like himself.

“As an African American growing up in a society like this I was taught at an early age that us African Americans sometimes have disadvantages in certain things, especially in the law enforcement,” reflected Davis.

The data supports his claim. According to a 2023 report by Why Not Prosper, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, the rate of imprisonment among Black people is 4.9 times that of white people nationally. In Philadelphia, the disparity is even greater. Black individuals are incarcerated at nine times the rate of their white peers in the city. Committed to changing this reality, participatory defense hubs work tirelessly through the greater Philadelphia region to empower community members to advocate for themselves as they navigate the criminal justice system.

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When Rasaan S., one of the panelists, was asked why he joined the Delco Participatory Defense Hub, he stated that it stemmed from a place of wanting to offer other’s the support he had lacked before becoming part of the Hub.

“I wanted someone to talk to, so that’s also who I want to be: someone who listens to those who need someone to talk to,” he noted.

Rasaan was the first participatory defense case in Delaware County. Transitioning from the looming prospect of incarceration to probation and house arrest not only facilitated his continued presence within the community but also empowered him to actively engage in the hub that helped him remain free.

Rasaan is one of thousands of people who have benefited from participatory defense, a community organizing model aimed at transforming the power structure within the court system. Participatory defense acknowledges the racial biases and inequities within the criminal justice system and seeks to level the playing field by amplifying the voices of those being charged, their families and community members.

“For a long time, there was this idea that you had to be a lawyer, or a judge, or a district attorney to have power in the courtroom,” explains Andre Simms, organizer with DayOneNotDayTwo and the Delco Participatory Defense Youth Hub. “But participatory defense is a way to organize the power of community.”

Rasaan speaking at the Free The Future Art Fair: A Celebration Of Renaissance Rhythm & Resistance organized by the Decarcerate Delco Coalition


What is Participatory Defense?

The roots of participatory defense trace back to San Jose, California, where Silicon Valley De-Bug pioneered the approach in 2009. Thanks to their efforts, charges have been dismissed, sentences reduced, and acquittals won at trial. With a network of 40 participatory defense hubs now established nationwide, this community empowered movement has resulted in over 25,869 years of time saved from incarceration, according to recent data.

Philadelphia serves as a leader of participatory defense advocacy, hosting the highest number of groups nationwide and pioneering the first participatory youth hub in the United States. In addition to the seven hubs within the city, the Delaware County Youth Participatory Defense Hub in Chester and the MontCo Participatory Defense in Montgomery County extend community-driven legal support across the Greater Philadelphia region. These defense hubs convene weekly, either in person or via Zoom, offering a range of services from defense preparation to educational sessions on navigating the legal system.

Participatory defense members Andre Simms of the Delco Hub, Heather Lewis of the MontCo Hub, and Betsy Elliott of the West Philadelphia Hub attribute part of the success of participatory defense hubs in Philadelphia in part to the support of the Philadelphia Public Defender’s Office. In fact, participatory defense was introduced to the Philadelphia region by Keir Bradford-Grey, then the Montgomery County Chief Public Defender, who saw the model as an effective way to help clients with their criminal cases.

Due to their heavy caseload, public defenders are often unable to prioritize certain strategies that could significantly benefit their clients but require extensive effort. In such cases, participatory defense hubs can provide the necessary support. By empowering families to actively contribute to and strengthen their cases, participatory defense hubs ensure that clients do not rely solely on legal service providers. While these hubs are familiar territory for many public defenders in Philadelphia, not all legal professionals are aware of the value of the initiative. Apprehension exists around the non-traditional nature of participatory defense, coupled with concerns about potential workload increases. “We have to show them that it helps the client, but it also helps the lawyer,” argued former Chief Public Defender of Montgomery County, Dean Beer, in an interview with the Atlantic.

In addition to providing support in bail assistance, sentencing advocacy, and plea deal negotiations, participatory defense hubs help connect people with other organizations that might be able to help them as they navigate the criminal justice system.

“The work within the hub is pretty much about individual people’s cases and what kind of help they need,” explains Betsy Eliott, with the participatory defense hub of West Philadelphia. “But the people in the hub are often connected to other organizations that have a policy or an advocacy role who we connect people to.”

Participatory defense hubs also employ innovative approaches such as social biography videos to provide a comprehensive view of individuals beyond their legal charges. This is intended to counteract racial bias and advocate for a nuanced understanding of each person’s circumstances. What makes social biography videos unique is their family and community-centric approach that amplifies the strengths of an individual and emphasizes their ties to the community. This contrasts with mitigation packets typically created by public defenders or social workers. According to Heather Lewis, leader at the MontCo Participatory Defense Hub, mitigation packets often utilize weaknesses to excuse an individual’s behaviors but don’t focus on their strengths and assets.

How to Create Social Biography Packets to Reduce Charges and Sentences by Silicon Valley De-Bug

Elliott underscores the crucial role emotional support plays within these hubs. She emphasizes that one of their core functions is to offer a safe space for individuals navigating the criminal justice system to express their emotions freely. This cathartic process enables them to unload their feelings before engaging with their attorney so they can approach their case with clarity and focus.

“A lot of that can be held in the hub and expressed in the hub which helps people prepare to talk to their lawyer in a more rational way,” Elliott explains.

Advocates emphasize that the essence of participatory defense lies not merely in offering services to the community, but in fostering community empowerment and self-advocacy.

“This is not a service, it’s actually community and family led,” recalls Lewis, with the MontCo hub. “We work to empower families to learn this process and learn to be their own advocate.” However, Lewis acknowledges the challenges of empowering individuals to take charge of their criminal cases. “The dynamic that this [criminal legal] system creates is that the attorney is the only person that the defendant trusts,” she notes.


Challenges Facing Participatory Defense Models

Despite recommendations from participatory defense facilitators to file motions when their attorneys are unwilling to do so, many individuals hesitate out of fear and thus miss the opportunity to secure reduced bails or sentences.

Another challenge facing participatory defense is the limited resources available within the communities to which individuals, aided by participatory defense strategies, return. “We’ll work with a young person and assist them in navigating the criminal legal system to achieve a better outcome,” reflects Simms. “However, they often return to communities that are severely underfunded, traumatized, and grappling with various challenges.” While participatory defense focuses on achieving the best legal outcome, there remains a pressing need for additional resources.

Another challenge participatory hubs face is securing funding. Participatory defense hubs often rely heavily on volunteers and operate with minimal staff. Such is the case of the MontCo Hub, where Lewis is the sole paid staff member due to limited funding. The financial constraints are exacerbated by the challenge of competing against a criminal justice system that operates around the clock with ample resources.

“We’re up against a system that never sleeps, one that’s well funded, well staffed, and well resourced,” Simms explains, also recognizing the emotional turmoil that comes with navigating the criminal system. Despite the challenges, he highlights the uniqueness of participatory defense in being able to provide immediate assistance to those impacted by the criminal justice apparatus. “We harness the power and the experiences of those who’ve been impacted by the system as a weapon against the system itself.”


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