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'We Believe in Due Process.'

Raj Jayadev, a MacArthur-certified “Genius” on how participatory defense gives criminal defendants more control during their trials.


This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Occupation: Community organizer
Age: 43
Home: San Jose

San Francisco: In October, you won a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant for developing a model for defendants and their lawyers called participatory defense. First, what did it feel like to win?
Raj Jayadev: I wanted them to rename who won the award. I think everyone knows it’s for the community, not for me individually.

What is participatory defense?
It’s a way for families and communities who have loved ones facing the criminal justice system to have an impact on their cases. We’re trying to transform the landscape of power in the court system.

That’s a little abstract. What does it mean in practice?
What has worked is to translate the instincts of the family of the defendant into something tangible. A key part of that is something called social biography packets and videos. Families want the courts to understand their loved ones beyond the case file. The judge, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney don’t have any point of reference beyond a singular incident. We tell the totality of who someone is—the defendant’s past and their potential future. We want to dissolve the walls of the court, to take the judge out of the courtroom and into the community.

How did you get started?
About 10 years ago, I was doing police-accountability work for [Silicon Valley] De-Bug, a community organizing and advocacy group in San Jose. As a community organization, we had know-how around police issues. But there was an unspoken barrier, since we weren’t lawyers—or I’m not—that the courts weren’t our arena. The most that we could do was throw a car wash to raise bail money. We couldn’t allow someone to face those institutions alone. So we changed the idea that only lawyers and judges belong in the courthouse.

OK, but lawyers and judges went to law school. Can community activists really change the legal system?
Lawyers, judges, and legal experts have done as much as they can within their lanes. Another way to make change is to add a new player who doesn’t have the same restrictions. Who better than the families and communities that are affected most?

But there must be some defendants you won’t work with, right?
We don’t have any disqualifiers based on what someone is alleged to have done. Everyone with allegations against them deserves a good defense. We believe in due process. And we know that things are always more complicated than the way our rudimentary system understands them to be. There’s always more to the story than a single alleged incident.

So if the family of Brock Turner, the Stanford student convicted of sexual assault, said to you, “There’s more to him than is presented in court,” you would help them?
We would give them tools to communicate to the court why a heavy sentence would not fulfill the spirit of justice.

This moment, especially around police shootings, does feel like people are open to criminal justice reform.
I think it’s just a matter of time and persistence. These are institutions that have had the privilege to act however they’ve wanted since their inception. Our work is consistent with this historical moment. Not just on the sensational cases, not just on major issues like the death penalty, but on what sentencing enhancement they’re giving to a 23-year-old on a Thursday afternoon.

You’re there at some of the worst moments in people’s lives. Does it ever make you feel hopeless?
When someone comes in, we ask them, “Who are you here for?” and we write that name on a whiteboard. Then, when they beat the charges or have their sentence reduced, we give them an eraser. We call it the eraser of justice. It symbolizes that the families are reunified, because they took this courageous step and said, “We’re not going to let the system take them.”


Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco 

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