Recent News

(661) 336-9335

Community Based Model for Pretrial and Judicial Success: Participatory Defense

Posted by Sara Cooper | Jul 13, 2023 | 0 Comments

We all understand that a person can be seen as just a case file and nothing more to judges and prosecutors, leading to a despairing result that can change that person's life completely upside down. A full outlook on what really happened that got the person arrested and detained in jail is extremely difficult to put forth when limited information is offered by defense counsel. According to Advancing Pretrial Policy & Research, people who are booked into jail, pretrial compared to those whom are released, are more likely to plead guilty, be sentenced to jail or prison, and have longer sentences which all impacts their livelihood in employment, familial matters, and housing.

With numerous reforms established in the past decade, there are mostly focused on the officials involved in the justice system in ensuring they are following renewed protocols, leaving those in jail with lack of representation and extended protections that continue to be ignored. Participatory defense is changing that.

Participatory defense is a community-based model that relies on the community members, advocacy groups, and family members of the impacted persons for uplifting folks who are facing charges whilst physically being in the courtroom from pretrial to sentencing if leading to there. Participatory defense is not a legal clinic or a case management service. Using this model, families move out of the role of “court watching” and into one of “court doing.”

Silicon Valley De-Bug (De-Bug) started Participatory Defense over 10 years ago. They were in 2001 as a local newspaper and multimedia platform. De-Bug's mission back then was to listen deeply and lift up the voices of community members left unseen during the Silicon Valley technology turnaround. In print media, they have a monthly magazine that contains of stories from different perspectives along with bringing those to the main spotlight in sharing their experiences with police and those that have died due to police brutality.

Their main focus with Participatory Defense, through the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, focuses on the role and power of family community members in connecting to the understanding of what a loved one endures in the justice system. They are able to verbalize and address concerns to a judicial official can have about a person reentry or their actions while released during pretrial. They are able to be an active participant in their defense and contribute assistance that the overworked counsel cannot suffice usually. Teams of PD are able to cultivate a structure where the impacted person is someone that is not seen with direct prosecution but someone that has an agency to exist.

Developed at the First National Participatory Defense Gathering in October 2016, Participatory Defense is guided by three principles: 

  • FAMILY and COMMUNITY STRENGTHcan play a pivotal role in stopping and reducing incarceration for a loved one and a community.
  • Families and communities can be even more powerful when taking the role of ORGANIZERAND AGENT OF CHANGE,rather than service recipient. 
  • By working on individual cases, communities can BUILD THE MOVEMENT of directly impacted peoples to hold the actors of the court accountable, make systemic change, and ultimately end mass incarceration.

A core activity is to hold weekly meetings where families and community members gather and share the knowledge they've accumulated through lived experience. People who have a loved one navigating the criminal legal system are asked to share three things:

  1. What is the name of your loved one?
  2. What procedural updates are there?
  3. What actionable steps can the De-Bug community take to support you?

Families can learn the skills of the judicial process along with identifying witnesses, reading police reports, gathering evidence, and collaborating with public defenders and advocate attorneys to not navigate the system alone. The PD team and other community affiliates follow the pathway that impacted individuals and their families want and hold court actors accountable, make systemic changes, and ultimately end mass incarceration.

According to the Participatory Defense Network, both the infrastructure and organizing IQ of how to practice, expand, and grow participatory defense already exists, waiting to be tapped. Participatory defense can animate, even challenge, communities to step even further into a court process that many thought was only the province of lawyers. As of 2018, participatory defense has taken back 6,500 years of incarceration from the criminal legal system.  

PD trainings consist of:

  • Introduction to Participatory Defense (typically for community organizations)
  • Participatory Defense Training Series for regular space and structure
  • Community and Public Defender Partnerships through Participatory Defense (for defense attorneys, public defenders, and legal organizations that focus on criminal justice and trial process)
  • Social Biography Video and Packets Trainings

The Participatory Defense Network consists of over 31 hubs across the country, and there are several more coming soon including in Bakersfield and Fresno. If you have any questions about the network, please contact Cecilia Chavez, Network Coordinator, at [email protected] or call her at (408) 971-4965.

If you are wanting to bring Participatory Defense to your community, please contact Participatory Defense Network at [email protected].

To learn more about Participatory Defense, check out the following links:

About the Author


There are no comments for this post. Be the first and Add your Comment below.

Leave a Comment



Our Law Firm Is Here for You

We focus on Domestic Violence and Driving Under the influence and we are here to listen to you and help you navigate the legal system. Contact us today.