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Collective Defense Project

Standing together, people facing prosecution could force rapid and radical decarceration. We are working to help strategize how.

Collective defense, as we use the phrase, describes a decarceral strategy that draws its power from the collective action of people impacted by arrests and prosecutions. As a practice, collective defense aims to leverage collective power, existing rules of criminal procedure, and lawyering tactics to take on the carceral impact of criminal legal proceedings.

These ideas are not new. Over a decade ago, in the pages of the New York Times, formerly incarcerated community organizer Susan Burton asked Michelle Alexander:

What would happen if we organized thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people charged with crimes to refuse to play the game, to refuse to plea out? What if they all insisted on their Sixth Amendment right to trial?

Susan Burton

Burton’s idea is a prime example of collective defense, and we believe it merits serious consideration. In May 2022, IEMI hosted a two-day convening of leading organizers, lawyers and scholars from around the country to begin developing collective defense strategies and to explore how they might be deployed in practice. The convening builds on work our directors and team members have done – in published scholarly and public writing, and keynote addresses to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers – to focus attention on collective defense strategies. Building on this foundation we continue to explore possibilities in this area, in active partnership with organizers and lawyers on the ground.

Read more below about our collective defense work.

No Justice, No Pleas

IEMI Executive Faculty Director Andrew Crespo’s published scholarship provides a leading analysis of plea strikes’ potential.

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Defendants United

IEMI Executive Faculty Director Andrew Crespo discusses defendant organizing in an essay published in the LPE Blog.

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Ending the Trial Penalty – NACDL Keynote

IEMI Directors Crespo and Dharia and IEMI Fellow Brittany White give a joint keynote address to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Presidential Summit on “ending the trial penalty.”

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What Happens if Defendants Collectively Refuse Pleas?

IEMI Executive Faculty Director Andrew Crespo discusses defendant unions and plea strikes with Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management.

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