In 2018, De-Bug launched A Day in California Court, a running public diary of the California court system. Through a local lens and informed by grassroots organizers, this online platform serves as a window to track how counties across California are responding to changes in bail law. The site provides stories, videos, and data that monitors pretrial detention and release, as well as materials on how communities can observe and impact pretrial release decision-making. In light of SB10 – the recent legislation that threatens to give judges more power to detain people pretrial – it is even more important to have both real-time observation and impact by local communities in their court systems.
This work is rooted in our state’s Participatory Defense network – a model developed by De-Bug in Santa Clara County to empower families to navigate the criminal justice system and bring our loved ones home from incarceration – to widen the impact of family and community insisting on our participation in the court.
Recently, De-Bug took a trip to visit our movement family in Southern California – Santa Ana, San Diego and Riverside – cities where participatory defense organizers are keeping loved ones out of incarceration. Organizers here are present in arraignment court – the first court date after arrest – so that family and community can impact the outcomes of pretrial detention. This work started with the possibility of ending money bail and is now even more critical because of the turn of events that effectively ended money bail with the passage of SB10, but will lead to more people detained awaiting trial.
“There’s a lot of stuff we’ve been told that is impossible, that we’ve been able to do.”
When Ramon Campos first stepped into a courtroom at the age of 16, he was accompanying a friend who had someone in custody. That’s when he first saw the cages that take you aback in the Santa Ana courtroom. “I’ve seen people freak out when they see their loved ones in those cages. They reinforce the idea that they [people in custody] are so dangerous, you have to keep them locked up.”
Ramon Campos outside the Santa Ana courthouse
Now 25, Ramon resembles a college student in a plaid blue shirt and a backpack on as he enters the Santa Ana courthouse, walking past metal detectors and guards commanding you to take everything out of your pockets. You might not guess that he has been part of protecting his community from deportation for nearly a decade.
Ramon and a group of teenagers took on deportation defense in a conservative stronghold county and ground zero for immigrants caught in the criminal justice system.
“We didn’t know what the hell we were doing,” says Ramon with a widening smile that becomes a laugh about the now national model of deportation defense.
Growing up in Santa Ana, Ramon saw constant harassment, accusation and the consequences immigrants faced in his city. He tells us that in Santa Ana 1 out of 2 youth have a parent that is an immigrant and it’s an all too common occurrence for youth in Santa Ana to come into contact with police.
Because Orange County has such a lack of legal help Ramon says, they just had to figure out ways to do what was considered unthinkable in Santa Ana.
“There’s a lot of stuff we’ve been told that is impossible, that we’ve been able to do.”
In addition to creating a deportation defense model as teenagers, there is the case of the youth who was tried and convicted as an adult even though he was innocent. Jesus Aguirre was their first experience building a narrative for a youth who had been wrongfully convicted. After winning an appeal that resulted in a long sentence, they worked to start a pardon process – without attorneys.
Now as part of Resilience OC – the result of RAIZ and Santa Ana Boys & Men of Color combining – they are building upon what the group learned in deportation defense and applying Participatory Defense in Santa Ana with court watching and doing to keep more people out of the clutches of the criminal justice system.
We met up at the courthouse that morning to get a first hand look at what’s happening in the courts at arraignment – the first court date after someone has been arrested, to hear the charges – and talk about ways to keep those individuals out of custody while they fight a case.
Ramon (center) with De-Bug organizers outside Santa Ana courthouse
“Some cages at zoos don’t even have a top”
We stepped into a courtroom at almost 10 am and found some seats in the back and were startled by the cages to the right of the courtroom that hold individuals in custody. There are four compartments with black chain links at the front and top, with tinted windows separating each, one for women, as if to keep the individuals only able to look to the judge and they speak to the attorney thru the black fence. They look more like holding tanks with a bench in the middle, so most of the in custody folks are crowding near the front if they want to hear what is being said by the judge and attorneys.
There is so much activity in this courtroom it is dizzying with people coming in and out from the hallways and “the back” of the court. A whole section of seating is roped off, likely because those seats are in eye line of the loved ones inside the cages. Lawyers are lined up at the front to hear their case, tons of private attorneys coming in and out. Past the bar of the courtroom there is a desk for the DA, the Public Defender has a table on the side of the cages – out of eyesight of the judge.
The bailiffs in their green uniforms resemble border patrol agents; they have repeatedly threatened to kick out multiple people in the pews for talking, for using their phone. All in a courtroom where attorneys are speaking to each other constantly, chewing gum, cell phones in hand and even answering their cell phones without anyone looking in their direction and a waive of noise comes in from the hall every time the door opens.
Charisse Domingo, a co founder of the Participatory Defense model, who has been in the courtrooms throughout the state with each participatory defense hub observes that this court is visually set up for the DA’s and the presiding judge, there is no sense that people are innocent until proven guilty with the use of those cages. “Some cages at zoos don’t even have a top,” she says.
Ramon recalls that this work started case by case, and now the aim for the future is “not only to impact a single case but the entire court system.” He along with the folks at Resilience OC are looking to continue combatting the policies that come out of the city with something that inspires and continues to create hope. “If family and community could really impact arraignments and bail at the very least it shifts their sense of hope. Hope is a big thing here, of not feeling isolated like folks live right now,” he says with the wisdom of naming the intangible.
A Day of Firsts – Meeting public defenders, families and alternate defenders
San Diego Participatory Defense with De-Bug in front of the Pillars of the Community office
The next day we were in in San Diego, and started the morning at the Pillars community space to meet Laila Aziz. Laila spent her early childhood in New York, but she knows San Diego like her hometown and has created a tight-knit supportive community here.
Before we circled up to chat, Laila gave us the tour of the space they are setting up to be community owned so that rising rents don’t force them out. There’s a coming worker owned collective – Café X next to the World Famous Imperial Barbershop. They envision the large back parking lot as a space to hold community events and incubate and support other small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Rosie Chavez, auntie of Jacob Dominguez who was killed by San Jose Police in Sept of 2017 connected with Laila over the experience of losing a loved one to police. Rosie talked about not only the incident that would forever change her family and led her to the work she now carries out with De-Bug. She talked about being approached by other families in San Jose with similar experiences as what allowed her and her family to know what to do next. Even when more than a year later they have not seen any official police reports of the death and have no answers. Despite the obstacles she is determined to move ahead and was reassured through a dream that she is indeed on the right path.
"Are you planning on locking up the whole world?"
Laila and Cheryl Canson, also a Participatory Defense organizer, tell us before the 1:30pm court that San Diego county just spent millions of dollars on a new courthouse and described it as intimidating, “It’s like you need a bachelor’s degree in technology to get through,” Laila said.
As we are stepping out of the car into the shadow of the massive new building, Cheryl says, “In San Diego, we don’t have housing, but we have this new court with 26 floors. Are you planning on locking up the whole world?”
San Diego and San Jose Participatory Defense Organizers outside the new Superior Court
Once you came up the stairs in the front of the building it feels like you are in line to get thru airport security and board a plane. It was just before 1:30pm, there are more than 10 San Diego sheriffs for a very small line of people moving thru into the court.
Inside the courtroom, loved ones are behind a glass wall in a space that is fit into the wall “tanks” with tempered glass at the bottom and you can’t see into them from the pews that fill the majority of the room. The very first rows are reserved for lawyers and are primarily empty, the back five or 6 are smaller and that’s where the public can sit. There are three bailiffs in the court, one by the judge, one by the door, and one at a podium calling the cases by line. At the front there is a desk for both the DA and the Public Defender.
The bailiffs call the line items here from a podium; they are looking for people with cases in the audience and sort of guessing who is who. Before we leave, Laila will be asked if she is being seen that day. At one point the Public Defender seemed to be off in space, the judge has to tell him that his client is waiting for him to get up and approach the podium. The judge asks the Public Defender if he'd like a bail review for one of the clients and the Public Defender says no. It's the only action taken to attempt to change bail and it came from the judge.
We don’t stay in the court very long, there’s a recess and Laila has a few firsts. She spoke with a family before they head into court, usually it is after, and she introduced herself to the Public Defender handling cases that day to be able to set up a future meeting.
Soon we have to be off to the hubs first meeting with the Alternate Defenders Office.
As part of the coalition Free SD, this meeting was a long time in the making to introduce Participatory Defense to the ADO and talk about the possibility of a collaboration.
San Diego's Participatory Defense weekly meeting
The day was not over, folks filed back to Pillars to set up for the weekly Participatory Defense meeting. At 5:30pm there are five women around folding tables setting up the space where they’ve been meeting since their training back in April of this year. Laila fills in for someone and leads the meeting this night, she's been nonstop all day, picked up her twin boys before the meeting and makes it look effortless as she gives each personal the individual attention and space to be both emotional and think thru key steps. Laila's own partner's name is on the list of cases to talk through that night.
The meeting feels very much like the ones that happen in San Jose and all across the country on any given night at the Participatory Defense hubs. A space not only where family can release the emotions of such a heavy burden, but strategize together on a course of action for their loved ones case. The room fills up with mothers, sisters, partners, and fathers as the evening goes on and by 8:15 pm – just 15 min over time - we’ve heard lows and highs – including the kind of story that is exactly why this work is being replicated across the country. Nee-Nee Torbert, another Participatory Defense organizer with a son facing 50 years to life, said that he applied the knowledge of Participatory Defense, spent the last two years fighting back and will only serve a 6 year sentence to be back with his family and community.
Ripe for Change
De-Bug folks with Mr. Keith Boone in Riverside, CA
The final city on this trip was half a day in Riverside. We met Mr. Keith Boone at 8:30 in the morning at the end of a long line outside of the courthouse. Mr. Boone towers over us and his commitment is demonstrated in his gentle support and reassurance he gives families he's been able to work with when he tells them he's been in their same situation. We learn from Mr. Boone that this courthouse sentences the most people to death. Inside we'll meet other folks on the Participatory Defense team from Starting Over Inc.
Exiting the elevator the long hall is filled with people, some jurors, some folks waiting for court. We’re looking for Courtroom 61 at the end of the hall. No one is going to tell you here that there are only 22 seats inside this courtroom available to the public, that you will be squeezed in like sardines on one side of the court while the front row and the opposite side of the isle is reserved for lawyers and not packed at all.
There will be so many detained loved ones that the front row of the public pews will also be used to seat loved ones in orange, with chains around their waist and on their hands. Women are seated one at a time in a single chair near the door to the back of the courtroom.
There are two bailiffs in this room, the larger one walks over to the door every time someone who is not a lawyer walks in to tell them “there’s no more room.”
“Walking!” announces the bailiff every time a loved one in custody walks in or out of the courtroom. Here, they walk right behind the DA and Public Defender’s table in front of the judge, it’s such a small passageway that folks are nearly bumping into each other.
Each person’s case is called in a matter of seconds and most sound like continuances – the majority of folks are giving up the right to a speedy trial, it seems like very little is accomplished.
At 10am the bailiff screams as he is approaching someone in the pews, “Yo! When he’s on the bench you need to chill. I don’t like repeating myself bro. You need to stop talking.”
At 10:13 am we hear a mention of pretrial services and a bail review. It’s the only time we will hear those words that morning.
Back out in the hall, the emotion is palpable. Mr. Boone says he tells people to expect to be in court all day. This court felt the most emotionally charged of the three we visited. Over and over we saw families frustrated, angry, sad, crying, and taking it out on the one person who will talk to them - the Public Defender. We checked in with the Public Defender that day and assured them that a model like Participatory Defense could help alleviate that initial point of communication. In Participatory Defense we partner with the Public Defender - a tremendous resource at the disposal of the community, that can also come to see the community and families as a resource, too.
A young lady bursts out of the courtroom crying, says “I fu***** hate this judge, how can he do that?” Her loved one was re-sentenced 75 years to life after an appeal. Their lawyer estimates that around 20 years he’ll be eligible for parole; it doesn’t console the young lady and Mr. Boone connects with her briefly hoping she joins the weekly meetings in Moreno Valley. Experiencing the court and how people were feeling made Riverside feel the most ripe for change.
We grab lunch in the same spot Mr. Boone used to strategize for his case just down the street from the courthouse. He was introduced to Participatory Defense in the middle of his own case, and says it helped him so much he had no choice but to be a part of this.
“I had the worst lawyer ever. I gave that man a $4500 check and only saw him on court dates.” His lawyer even sent a secretary to stand in for him in court.
He recalled the day before his first court appearance when he talked to his lawyer over the phone. The lawyer said that because he hadn’t been contacted yet the case was probably not picked up and that Mr. Boone should just show up to court the next day.
Not even an hour later the secretary called and said the case was definitely picked up – Mr. Boone was now charged with four felony strikes. He had an additional 200k bail amount and had to rush to pay more money to the bails bondsmen otherwise he would be taken into custody the next day at court.
With some insisting from his brother, Mr. Boone switched lawyers after being recommended Vonya Quarles of Starting Over Inc., a Participatory Defense organizer. That was back in February of this year when he says he felt his lawyer was trying to get him to agree to a six-year sentence.
He decided that once his case was done he would be a part of the movement because of the fear he experienced and the feeling like he had no help. With Participatory Defense he says, not only was he helped while the court case was going on, but once the court case was over as well.
After the trial Mr. Boone got 3 years probation and 58 days work release, after looking at a 10 year sentence. “I wouldn’t be sitting here now if it were for him. I know that for a fact,” he says of his original lawyer. He started attending weekly meetings, met everybody and said, “I love this and I've been here ever since."
On the trip we witnessed structural and institutional obstacles in all three cities, effectively meant to isolate the courts from the community. And some of the initial resistance some cities are facing feels much like the bumpy road folks began here in Santa Clara County. Perhaps what can make the most difference is that no one is walking that road alone now as this is taking shape in nine counties across California and growing. With the freedom fighters and movement makers informed by their own experience, each county is creating the model that will #FreeOurPeople. We have much to look forward to in 2019.