The power of Participatory Defense

by Rebecca Paceley

As Say Yes to second chances (Vote Yes on 4) took off last year, it created a renewed focus on people who are currently or have been incarcerated and the plights that they face everyday. These challenges include housing, employment and regaining the right to vote. The question of how to lower the incarceration rate is a continuous social concern. Participatory Defense has offered a solution to this problem.

The Florida Council for Incarcerated and formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls   (Florida Council) has brought a new program to Alachua County. Florida is the home to the newest hub of Participatory Defense. Many times public defenders are over worked with limited resources and push defendants toward taking plea bargains. This is where Participatory Defense hubs come into play.

What is Participatory Defense? Participatory Defense (PD) model was developed by Raj Jayadev, of California, as a grassroots collective that turns community organizing principles towards reforming criminal justice.

In short PD is a way to humanize loved ones in the eyes of the court system and educate families and defendants how to help in their own court cases. It shows both defendants and their  families how to work through the complex system of criminal justice system, and assists public defenders assigned to the cases.

Communities are able to accomplish this by assisting in case discovery, review allegations and evidence discovery. PD volunteers work with the families to create bio social descriptions of their loved ones, their part in the family unit, their contributions  to the community and their need to provide for their families .

PD measures its success in the amount of time saved, from either cases dismissed or in reduction of the length of time sentenced.

For example, David attended an anti-Trump rally on inauguration day and was arrested. David was thrown to the ground and into mailboxes several times before being dragged into the streets and arrested. His charges were failure to disperse, unlawful assembly, failure to obey a lawful order, and assault and battery on an officer.

The PD hub provided assistance to David’s lawyer by collecting contact information of potential witnesses, collecting witness statements of the incident and the times leading to the incident, creating a social biography packet, gathering civilian videos of the incident, having witnesses write down their recollection of the incident, and documenting injuries from officers.

After viewing the video provided by an eye witness, David’s charges were dismissed and he was set free. Time saved: one year. Video of David’s arrest can be seen at

To date the PD hubs have saved over a total of 3,350 years of jail time. So far, that is 33 centuries of time saved. That is 33 centuries of parents reunited with children, people returning to work, people being able to strengthen their local communities.

The Florida Council hub of the PD movement is part of a national movement to provide this education to our community, our Gainesville community, our North Central Florida community.Jhody Polk, Executive Director of Florida Council, described the purpose of PD to a room of volunteers as “We are here to empower each person and ensure each person is given a dignified and fair judicial process.”

PD hub will be creating pamphlets with detailed information about the first 48 hours after arrest for both families and those arrested. The PD hub is a place of security for families to reach out to and learn how to be of assistance to their loved ones.

The PD hub will have meetings twice a week, one in the evening and one in the daytime to ensure all families can make a meeting despite transportation issues, work schedules and child care needs. The PD hub will be there for anyone who needs help determining how the court process unfolds.

As participatory defense continues to take hold here, the search for committed volunteers to work with families, support defendants’ families in court and help with clerical needs grows. There will be a training meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 17 from 6-8 p.m. at GTEC  room 108, 2153 SE Hawthorne Rd. in Gainesville. Please contact the Florida PD hub via email to offer any services you wish to provide. Their web page for additional information  is:

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