Criminal justice reform advocates push for community-driven approach of participatory defense

Cherri Gregg
December 11, 2018 - 2:06 pm
City officials listen to testimony during a hearing Monday on participatory defense, an innovative approach to reform that makes the community part of the justice system.

Cherri Gregg/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Philadelphia's Special Committee on Criminal Justice Reform held a hearing Monday night on an innovative approach to reform that makes the community part of the justice system. 

Participatory defense is a pilot initiative that includes intervention by the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, courts, and the community. The program pairs individuals accused of a crimes with stakeholders that provide support by walking the defendant and their family through the criminal justice system. It also provides prosecutors, defenders and judges with a clearer picture of the person behind the alleged crimes.

Proponents of the effort testified Monday, hoping to gain citywide support.

"We see it as criminal justice reform at its finest," said Keir Bradford-Grey, chief of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. She calls the effort "pre-entry" versus "re-entry." "We're figuring out who doesn't need to go to prison; who can be worked on before that."

Bradford-Grey said law enforcement often make decisions without all of the facts. Participatory defense helps defendants get services and support that will allow them to deal with the issues that caused them to come into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.

"This doesn't just achieve public outcomes. It also increases public safety," said Bradford-Grey, noting that the outcomes mean defendants are less desperate and bitter after contact with the system. It also it helps shift lives in a more productive direction.

"They're not just the charges that you see," added Steve Austin, who works for Mothers In Charge, a nonprofit that operates one of three Best Outcomes Hubs.

Mothers In Charge meets with its defendants every Tuesday night, working with the accused and their families and teaching them how to best navigate the system and change their lives.

"It's communities stepping up, willing to help and assist with the process," Austin testified.

"A whole lot of things went wrong in that courthouse," said Zakiyyah Salahuddin, whose 13-year-old son Zahiem was arrested in August. 

He was detained and charged with multiple crimes for playing with a toy cap gun he bought from a corner store. Hub facilitators showed up to court and spoke to prosecutors and the judge. Bradford-Grey even came to court.  

The result: All parties realized the charges were part of a major misunderstanding, and all charges we dropped.

"We would have never been able to fight as hard as we fought without the hub," Salahuddin said.

"I had to look at a lot of things about myself that I did not like," admitted Nicole Dorrell, who got time served and is on probation as a result of the work she did attending a Best Outcomes Hub every week. It was there she finally dealt with some of the trauma that lead to her substance abuse and other problems, which resulted in bad choices and her repeated contact with the criminal justice system.

"I never had a family," she testified. "Now my purpose is to turn around and help other people."