Entrepreneur and community organizer Raj Jayadev, far left, discusses the social and economic impacts of getting low-income families involved in building a criminal defense for the accused. Carnel, left, a single parent of two, faced a five-year prison sentence for a low-level drug crime. After families in the community worked together to build an effective defense, Carnel was alternatively sentenced to six months in outpatient drug rehab and was able to continue to care for his family. (Photo by PopTech)
Entrepreneur and community organizer Raj Jayadev, far left, discusses the social and economic impacts of getting low-income families involved in building a criminal defense for the accused. Carnel, left, a single parent of two, faced a five-year prison sentence for a low-level drug crime. After families in the community worked together to build an effective defense, Carnel was alternatively sentenced to six months in outpatient drug rehab and was able to continue to care for his family. (Photo by PopTech)
Eight out of ten people who face the justice system in the U.S. can’t afford a lawyer.  Raj Jayadev, the founding director of De-Bug, a media  company in San Jose, California, saw that the accused were cut off from their families and other resources and didn’t know how to navigate the court system. Typically, they got a public defender who was stretched thin across too many cases.  

Ninety percent of those who are charged in the U.S. and can’t afford a lawyer plead guilty without ever going to trial, regardless of whether they are innocent or have extenuating circumstances that could lessen their sentence, said Jayadev.

“It looked like a conveyor belt to jail,” he said. 

 He didn’t see that as just and he thought that could change if families were part of the solution in a way that would serve the community better, ultimately make it safer, and upend the current justice system in the process so that it was less likely to penalize low-income people due to their economic circumstances.

“Take families and make them an essential part of the defense team so they can change the outcome of cases and transform the landscape and power of the court system,” said Jayadev, outlining his goal.


He developed an organizing model and established the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project (ACJP). The project uses what Jayadev calls participatory defense. Typically families of the accused are gathered in a room and the names of the accused are written on a whiteboard. Each name becomes a point of discussion for the whole group. They look over police reports, consider the extenuating circumstances, and build a biographical profile of the accused. Jayadev trains family groups to create videos that show a biography of the accused that can be used  in defense or in sentencing. Together, the families work as partners with the public defenders to build a case.

“Collectively, they go through every single name,” said Jayadev. 

The families meet weekly and, in doing so, they also build a sense of community, he said.

Jayadev gave the example of Carnel, a single father of two young girls who had pled guilty to a low-level drug charge and was facing a five-year sentence. 

The families came up with the idea of creating a photo essay of Carnel making his daughters breakfast and taking them to volleyball practice and used it in his defense. Instead of five years, the judge handed down a sentence of six months in an outpatient drug rehabilitation program, which served the community and Carnel’s family better than a prison sentence, said Jayadev.

“I like to use the term ‘time saved’ as a play on words of  ‘time served’,” he said. He looked at the data and added it up.

“In the five years we have been doing this, we have booked 1,862 years of time saved,” said Jayadev. 

“This is a new movement,” he said. “We are training communities in participatory defense around the country right now.”

Jayadev is a 2015 PopTech fellow in social innovation. More information on Jayadev and ACJP is available at acjusticeproject.org.