De-Bug founder awarded MacArthur ‘genius grant’ for social justice work

The mysterious phone call came as Raj Jayadev left the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice after yet another day helping families of criminal defendants navigate the sometimes intimidating labyrinth of the court system.

“The first thing they said was, ‘Are you alone?’ ” recalled the co-founder and longtime director of San Jose-based Silicon Valley De-Bug. “Whenever someone says that, you want to say, ‘You got the wrong number.’ ”

It was an inauspicious greeting for Jayadev, given he’s one of the South Bay’s most outspoken critics of the criminal-justice system and law enforcement that he’s made his mission to reform.

The caller on the line, however was from the MacArthur Foundation, letting him know that he was one of the year’s 25 recipients of its prestigious fellowship, commonly known as a “Genius Grant.” He was chosen for his work in community organizing, particularly in helping pioneer “participatory defense” — credited with helping families with few resources and public defenders increase their chances of winning their cases, or at least reducing their sentences.

The grant, which comes by way of secret nomination, awards Jayadev $625,000 over five years. The award is famous for its “no-strings attached” status, meaning the money can be spent continuing De-Bug’s work in any way he and the group sees fit.

Previous MacArthur fellows — who have been recognized since 1981 for promoting innovation and creativity from the sciences to public policy to journalism and the arts — include renowned Stanford professor and social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt, and famed playwright and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Like many recipients before him, Jayadev said the award came as a complete surprise. His first instinct was credit the dozens of staff and volunteers who have buoyed De-Bug since he helped found the organization in 2001, initially as an urban ethnic news magazine.

“The first thing that ran through my head, I have to tell the people who really won this award,” he said. “The way I see the award, it’s a recognition of a community journey.”

Raj Jayadev, right, director and co-founder of the San Jose-based social-justice organization Silicon Valley De-Bug, talks to staff at their San Jose headquarters. Jayadev has been named a 2018 recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially known as a “Genius Grant,” for his work in community organizing and pioneering “participatory defense,” helping criminal defendants and their families navigate the court process and better effect legal victories and reduced sentences. (Courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation) 

Jayadev was referring in part to the numerous family members of people arrested who came to the De-Bug office just outside downtown San Jose, desperately looking for help and revealing the void for a much-needed service.

“All it really was is families sitting around the (office) table, saying, ‘My loved one has court next Wednesday, what do we do?’ ” he said. “We didn’t invent anything. We took the ethos and organizing IQ that families and communities already have, and layered it over a court system that by design is this isolating experience.”

Perhaps the most visible and recognized form of that advocacy is Jayadev and his organization’s promotion of the participatory defense model, the centerpiece of the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project named after a De-Bug leader and aspiring defense lawyer who was shot and killed in San Jose in 2010.

De-Bug staff have spread the practice across the country, training similar social-justice groups in how to act as a court resource for those who often have no one to turn to but an often overworked public defender. Jayadev happened to be in Seattle doing that same kind of work when talking about the MacArthur award on the eve of its public announcement Thursday.

So far, De-Bug has helped cultivate 21 participatory defense “hubs” in cities including San Diego, New York, Philadelphia, Knoxville and Nashville. In all, they estimate they have shaved 4,000 years worth off potential prison time for their clients.

Santa Clara County has been an incubator for the practice, and attorneys with the Public Defender’s Office often refer defendants’ families to De-Bug staff and volunteers who sit in the back of arraignment court. Relatives are asked to fill out an initial form with background information such as a defendant’s job, family status, and criminal history, so that the defense attorneys have some basis to argue against high bail or for supervised release.

De-Bug also helped pioneer “visual advocacy” — videos aimed at humanizing defendants presented at sentencing, and which advocates contend have resulted in reduced prison time.

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Over the years, De-Bug has routinely supported and counseled families of people killed in police encounters, and recently has heavily advocated for bail reform, arguing that it unfairly punishes poor people and communities of color. They initially co-sponsored Senate Bill 10, which eliminated cash bail in the state, but later pulled their support when the bill was re-written, then eventually signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

They contended that the changes replaced one problematic money-stained system with one that put jailing decisions almost entirely in the hands of judges, skewing against the same groups they intended to help.

But for Jayadev, even as he looks over the past two decades, progress and success for the organization is still rooted in watching people walk into De-Bug’s self-described funky office and join their impromptu family, which includes his wife Charisse Domingo, with whom he has a 7-year-old son.

“De-Bug has always been a place where people get to exercise the values they espouse or say they believe in, and you get to test it too,” he said. “Some of these principles and beliefs can have real impact on the trajectory of people’s lives.”

Check back later for updates to this story.

Source: FS – All – Interesting – News 2
De-Bug founder awarded MacArthur ‘genius grant’ for social justice work