Support Participatory Defense

Two protestors holding signs in front of a building. One on the left reads, "Mental illness is not a crime." The one on the right reads, "Care not Cages."
San José Spotlight

San José Spotlight


The ARD spoke with Alicia Chavez (she/her) from Silicon Valley De-Bug about their efforts to reduce incarceration by centering the families and communities of people facing legal charges. This model, participatory defense, is now used across the country to push back against a racist system of mass incarceration that is now larger than any other carceral system in the world. 

Seriously grappling with the inequities in the criminal justice system means opposing its harm in all cases, where an individual is accused or convicted of minor or serious crimes. Participatory defense is one way that overpoliced and over-incarcerated communities take back agency from an oppressive system. Across the country, the participatory defense has reclaimed over 7,000 years of people’s lives that would otherwise be spent confined within inhumane institutions. This interview was condensed for length and clarity.

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Q: What is Silicon Valley De-Bug?

De-Bug started when temp workers started organizing, producing magazines, and sharing their stories. More and more people would bring more issues, and we started getting involved in the criminal justice system. 

One of the first campaigns was getting public defenders into misdemeanor court in Santa Clara County. They didn’t have public defenders in misdemeanor court, so people would just plead to whatever charge they’d get to not have to go to court. Because they would have to miss work, or they didn’t have childcare. People were afraid that they would have to go to jail. They would accept anything without knowing the consequences in the long run, like certain charges of “moral turpitude” that could have immigration consequences in the future. And we developed this model called participatory defense.

Q: What is participatory defense? 

Participatory defense is a model where it’s the person facing charges, or their family, that’s involved and participating in their own defense to get the best outcome for their case

The person facing charges is usually on the inside, so we’d work with the families on the outside. And family isn’t blood; it’s someone willing to put in time and effort in supporting the person that’s on the inside. There are weekly meetings with organizers and families of people who are facing charges. We talk the families through the court process. We help people talk to their attorneys to figure out what it is that they can do. 

And we help families build a social biography package. This humanizes the person and shows that they have support on the outside and future prospects. At the pretrial stage, this can get bail reduced since it reassures the court that they’ll return to court and that they’re not a safety risk in their community. As for sentencing decisions, it shows that they’re needed in their community and that they have a support system as they reintegrate. And we’ve been focusing on post-conviction work: one a person has been sentenced and is in prison, how to get them home. 

Q: Why is this necessary? 

Because of systemic racism, most of our jail is people of color. 84% are not convicted of a crime; they’re in pre-trial incarceration. A lot of them have gang enhancements because they’re people of color or because of where they live, not necessarily because they’re part of a gang. If a white person commits robbery, it’s robbery. If a person of color commits robbery, it’s robbery plus a gang enhancement. The system is set up to oppress people of color

All we’re trying to do is level out the playing field to get the best outcome for our community. The system is setting them up for failure. We want to make sure they come home. 

Q: Are there forms of participatory defense that don’t center on an individual? 

There’s a lot of campaigns that we work on through participatory defense that aren’t connected to a single incarcerated person. We’re working to stop the creation of a new jail. Right now we have two jails. Neither is at full capacity. If both our current jails are not to max capacity, there’s no need for a new jail. Instead, we say build mental health resources. 

We’re working with a partner organization of white allies called SURJ. These are folks that aren’t necessarily impacted by the system, but they see its problems. We’re talking to decision-makers on why they shouldn’t build a new jail and why mental health is important inside the jail.

Q: How did you start work with De-Bug and participatory defense? 

My sister Cecilia is also an organizer here at De-Bug; she’s about ten years older than me. She got involved in 2008 when my dad went through the deportation process. 

I was around twelve years old, so I’ve always been around De-Bug: showing the impact of what the system, not just the criminal court system but the immigration system does on families. 

Q: Does participatory defense work? 

The husband of one of our organizers was originally facing 242 years in prison. Through participatory defense, he was sentenced to 38 years to life. And with all that organizer’s work and all her efforts, he came home after eight years. We started sharing the model of participatory defense. There are now 34 hubs around the country, from our partner organizations here in California to a lot of hubs on the East Coast.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Participatory defense promotes the agency of the families and communities of people facing criminal charges. 
  • We need to take community action to stop the expansion and continuation of the mass incarceration system.

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