Protect Your People

How Ordinary Families Are Using Participatory Defense to Challenge Mass Incarceration

An eye-opening look at “participatory defense,” the innovative practice that allows the loved ones of those charged with crimes to help influence the outcome of court cases, by the MacArthur Award–winning activist

“Raj Jayadev of Silicon Valley De-Bug is creating a grassroots model that empowers individuals facing incarceration to work with their families and communities and play an active role in their defense.” —MacArthur Foundation announcement

The courthouse is an important part of every story of mass incarceration in America and, too often, it is a place of powerlessness for those facing criminal charges, their families, and their communities. But the courthouse can also be an important site of resistance, a place where Americans affected by incarceration can become agents of change—even though they are not lawyers or judges. Writing for those new to activism and seasoned organizers alike, celebrated criminal justice advocate Raj Jayadev provides a comprehensive introduction to participatory defense, the incredibly effective community organizing model that leads to better outcomes for criminal cases, shifting power in courtrooms along the way.

In lively, accessible prose, Jayadev presents remarkable stories from organizers across the country who demonstrate how participatory defense has led to acquittals, dismissed and reduced charges, and prevented lengthy prison sentences. Lifting up a radical vision of community intervention, Protect Your People also addresses bail hearings, deportation cases, and youth threatened with transfer to adult court, showing that real change is possible when ordinary people step into America’s courtrooms and get involved.


“If you think our criminal system is unfair but don’t know how to challenge it, please read this powerful book. When the story of mass incarceration’s demise is one day written, the ordinary people turned community activists featured in these pages will surely play a starring role.”
—James Forman Jr., Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Locking Up Our Own and co–editor of Dismantling Mass Incarceration
“The stories in Protect Your People provide a window into what is possible when people come together to face the violence of legal systems with community, compassion, and strength. It is a must-read for its inspiring collective account of how we can take down mass incarceration—but only if we do it together, taking our cues from those who are closest to the problem.”
—Jocelyn Simonson, author of Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Incarceration and professor of law and associate dean for research and scholarship, Brooklyn Law School
“Having spent a career building a movement of public defenders to help transform the criminal legal system, I am all too aware that human beings are easily processed into cages when the voices, stories, and power of justice-impacted families and communities are suppressed. Through participatory defense these voices are heard, stories are told, and power is realized. It is a model that strengthens our work as justice advocates by breaking down walls between the court system and the people it impacts most directly. The lessons in this book will make all of us who care about justice more effective.”
—Jonathan Rapping, the author of Gideon’s Promise: A Public Defender Movement to Transform Criminal Justice
“How do we free people caught in the criminal legal system? As we work to dismantle this prison industrial complex we need multiple ways to organize for the freedom of those currently incarcerated! Jayadev’s moving, detailed, and timely collection offers a range of ideas, examples, and reflections from people who are working collaboratively to free people while also keeping our eyes on the prize.”
—Erica R. Meiners, co-author of both Abolition. Feminism. Now. and The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Sexual Harm, Ending State Violence
“The pretrial process is often opaque—if not incomprehensible. Protect Your People busts through these walls by not only explaining how the carceral system works, but more importantly, how families and communities can come together and wrench their loved ones from its jaws.”
—Victoria Law, journalist and co-author of Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms
“The model of participatory defense pioneered by Silicon Valley De-Bug is one of the most important and inspiring developments of the last two decades in the fight against mass incarceration. You won’t be the same after reading this book, and you’ll think differently about how you can get involved in your community.”
—Alec Karakatsanis, author of Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System and founder of the Civil Rights Corps
“Participatory defense gives marginalized communities access to justice commonly denied to them. It gave my friend the support she needed to show that her son suffered from a mental health illness as opposed to being seen just as a criminal justice problem. It gave my other dear friend access to freedom after serving a couple decades, and a daughter a chance to welcome her father home. It gave my son a road map to engage in the fight to free his son, and the hope we all need as a family.”
—Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children

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