NORRISTOWN, Pa.—Things were not looking up for Saabir Lewis last August. The 21-year-old faced up to 20 years in prison on charges including assault, trespassing on school property, and armed robbery stemming from incidents in 2015 and 2016. Though no one was badly hurt, the offenses were serious.

He is now in a dramatically different circumstance: After 10 months in county jail, Lewis will soon be transferred to a juvenile-detention facility to finish out a two-year sentence, after which he’ll have five years of probation. Aside from the benefits of a shortened sentence and detention among people closer to his age, he’ll be able to participate in rehabilitation programs that an adult prison likely wouldn’t have.

Lewis caught a break because his mother got intimately involved in his case. Before a sentencing hearing in April, Heather Lewis explained his personal history to his public defender in the hopes of influencing his sentence. Saabir had been emotionally and physically abused by a relative since he was 10 years old, she said, and had recently been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after he was shot at a party. The public defender renegotiated Saabir’s plea deal based on this information, and at the hearing his mother testified to her son’s story.

“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.  

When Heather started the operation—after learning about participatory defense from the county’s former chief public defender—she did not anticipate becoming a participant herself. She was surprised at how difficult the process was, starting with an initial challenge of opening up to the group. “You have to own the fact that your child committed a crime of some sort,” she said. “It’s very traumatizing to go through that as a parent.”

Heather was also surprised how hard it was to stay engaged with her son’s case—even though she’d coached so many others on how to do so. For months she felt ignored by his lawyer, who she says didn’t return her phone calls or emails. “Here I am—I’m [nobody] special, but I have these relationships and I know these people—and still I’m having this much difficulty getting a hold of my son’s public defender,” she said. Eventually she asked the county’s current chief public defender, Dean Beer, to intervene. He saw to it that Heather got the meeting she requested—the very session that led to Saabir’s reduced sentence.

Many of the local public defenders have been slow to embrace participatory defense—a roadblock Heather and her allies hope to surmount by providing more information about it. “Public defenders are overworked already. They’re afraid it’s another thing to do,” said Beer, who supports Heather’s program. “We have to show them that it helps the client, but it also helps the lawyer.”

Beer said participatory defense can foster better communication between the community and his office. “People think that we work for the system—work with the [district attorney]. That we want them to plead guilty so we can move on to the next case,” he said. Participatory defense breaks these myths by “help[ing] people understand the work that has been done and the work that needs to be done.” (The Montgomery County district attorney could not be reached for comment.)

Convincing offenders’ family and friends that they can help is no small task either, Jayadev said. “The challenge is letting people know that they could affect change if they’re not lawyers,” he said. “That is the hurdle we face every time we go to a new city and introduce the model.” Jayadev was in the midst of an anti-police-misconduct campaign about 10 years ago when he first began thinking about participatory defense. Lawyers shouldn’t be given sole control over a case’s outcome, he thought: “We realized that we were relinquishing power at the most important moment: when the case hit the courtroom.”