“The more information that I have in front of me the better,” said Judge Garrett Page, who heard the case. He determined Saabir needed rehabilitation and supervision, not a long prison sentence. “Oftentimes, the loved ones are the best historians” for a defendant, he explained.
It may seem obvious for a lawyer to use family members’ insights in building a client’s defense. But public defenders like Saabir’s typically don’t, thanks to large and time-consuming caseloads that preclude that kind of nitty-gritty work. A model of community organizing called participatory defense seeks to compensate for that deficiency—by training non-lawyers, like Heather, on how to be effective advocates for their loved ones.
Heather already had some expertise on how to work Saabir’s case. In the last two years, she helped establish a participatory-defense program outside of Philadelphia before becoming a participant herself. She’s a social worker at the Community Action Development Commission, an anti-poverty nonprofit in Montgomery County. There, she organizes weekly meetings that are the bedrock of the participatory-defense model, functioning as part support group and part training session. Participants can pose questions about the legal system and learn which ones to ask their loved one’s lawyers, and sometimes a representative from the public defender’s office comes, too.
Participants’ chief mission is to become the best courtroom supporters they can using the firsthand knowledge they have. Their work can take the form of delivering testimony at a hearing, like Heather did; soliciting letters of support from other family members, employers, doctors, and others, for the judge and lawyers to use as a reference; and even gathering actual evidence to bolster an offender’s claim of innocence. Recently, biographical videos, featuring interviews with defendants’ family and community, have become an increasingly common courtroom tactic.
The participatory-defense model was first developed in San Jose, California, 10 years ago and is now practiced in over a dozen locales across the country, from California to New York to North Carolina. Nationally, the practice has cut 3,350 years from offenders’ sentences, said Raj Jayadev, a longtime community organizer who created the San Jose program and now consults with communities starting their own.
In Montgomery County, meetings are held at a church in Pottstown and in CADCOM’s office in Norristown. The locations were chosen deliberately, Heather explained. Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest in Pennsylvania—home to parts of the tony Main Line—and Pottstown and Norristown are its two poorest towns. They also have the highest arrest rates.
Over the past two years, about 90 people have gone through the program and cut at least 78 years of incarceration, per Heather’s calculation. (She tallies the years by comparing offenders’ original sentences with those ultimately given.) It’s difficult to quantify the program’s success given how cases can vary—some offenders have more exculpatory backstories than others. And the program’s organizers don’t know what happens with every case because not everyone reports back. So far, the program has been run on a shoestring budget backed by a couple of small grants, but Heather hopes to grow it and hire dedicated staff to assist participants.