Seeking Just Trials
Meet three people working to re-balance the scales of justice.
Trials are far from impartial if the defendant is poor or reliant on public defenders. These people are working to re-balance the scales of justice.
Partners for Justice
Emily Galvin-Almanza practices holistic defense, a set of techniques pioneered by the Bronx Defenders, a public defense organization where she worked before co-founding Partners for Justice in 2018.
Holistic defense involves embedding non-lawyer advocates in the public defense system to provide wraparound services for the accused, including help with housing, transportation, education, medical and mental health care, substance abuse treatment, food benefits, and more.
“These trained non-attorneys are relieving the attorneys from having to worry about these things,” Galvin-Almanza says. “Because public defenders worry about this stuff.”
The approach also helps address a judge’s questions about the defendant’s plans for the future, their support network, and their family’s needs, which can influence sentencing and bail decisions, for example.
The nonprofit currently receives about 40% of its funding from state governments, and as of April 2022, the organization works in 17 public defense offices in seven states.
Partners for Justice’s advocates are more racially diverse than the legal profession overall, Galvin-Almanza says, and offer valuable insight into the needs of poorer and non-White communities that are more likely to need a public defender.
Sonja Ebron’s big idea came when she was sued and found she couldn’t afford an attorney on a middle-class income.
“I represented myself, I got crushed by the other side’s lawyers, and the whole thing left a sour taste,” Ebron says.
Ebron, a programmer, realized that the court system was impenetrable to most people, even when it came to basic tasks like knowing when to file which documents.
As a result, Ebron and her wife, Debra Slone, a librarian, created Courtroom5: a do-it-yourself clearinghouse of procedural and legal information for all 50 states, guiding clients through the minutiae of filings.
Someone being sued can use Courtroom5’s software to guide them through the bureaucracy. They’ll still need an attorney at trial, but Ebron says a defendant may find enough information to help them avoid a trial entirely.
“We don’t tell people what the outcome should be or give legal advice, but we do make what the judge wants to see transparent to them,” she says.
So far, about 70% of the company’s users have reached what Ebron considers a positive outcome: dismissal, negotiated settlement, victory, or simply “not getting crushed” at trial.
Participatory Defense Coordinator,
Co-Founder, Silicon Valley De-Bug
Silicon Valley De-Bug organized in 2001 around police accountability work in San Jose, California. In 2008, the organization expanded its services with a community organizing model for people facing criminal charges, now called Participatory Defense. The initiative aims to allow the defendants’ families and communities to come together and affect the outcome of their cases, shifting the balance of power in the court system.
Raj Jayadev, who coordinates the initiative, says that involving families and community members provides support for the accused and also helps show the court system that the defendant is a person outside of the confines of a single case. Family and community members also may have critical information about the case that could help change the outcome.
“In all aspects, it’s a bulking up and rounding out of a defense team,” Jayadev says.
Participatory Defense started as an informal group of families supporting each other in court, then evolved into a series of regular meetings. Nowadays, De-Bug volunteers are often inside the courtroom during arraignments, establishing contact with and gathering information from defendants and their families to bring before the judge.
De-Bug has trained groups in other communities in the same best practices and now counts nearly 40 organized groups meeting regularly in 16 states.