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Community Action in The Courtroom Project

Community members can work to end mass incarceration by exercising power within the adjudicative process. We help them imagine how.

We believe that communities must lead the fight against mass incarceration. But that fight does not have to – and should not – occur entirely inside the courtroom. The process of a criminal case, from beginning to end, holds numerous opportunities for community intervention. IEMI works to help illuminate, strategize and build these interventions, in three main areas.

First, trials – and plea bargains. Our system of plea bargaining has largely eliminated the powerful possibilities presented by the criminal trial. Through our Collective Defense Project, we work with communities to highlight the ways in which our system of pleas can be a powerful entry point for community action.

Second, juries. Coercive plea bargaining tactics don’t just hurt the people facing prosecution. Juries are the voice of democracy  in the penal system —the voice of the communities most directly impacted. When prosecutors coerce guilty pleas and eliminate trials, they deprive the community of its power to check prosecutorial abuses. By the same token, any effort to increase the role of trials in the system will enhance the power and the significance of juries. Recognizing this dynamic, we work to empower local juries and grand juries to operate as meaningful checks on incarceration in their communities.

And third, public defense. Both of IEMI’s executive directors were public defenders and believe that defenders have significant – and unique – potential to support community efforts against mass incarceration. Public defenders are the actors who stand next to individual people facing the carceral system, and are poised to help navigate and fight it. Through our anti-carceral lawyering work with community organizers, through strategic coordination with defenders around the country, and through our active engagement writing for and speaking to the defender community, we are helping to pave and build paths forward for defenders to intervene in mass incarceration.

Read more about our community in courtrooms work: 

Twenty Million Angry Men

IEMI Executive Director Premal Dharia, IEMI Fellow James Binnall, and Brendan Woods, Chief Public Defender of Alameda County, discuss juror disenfranchisement.

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NACDL Keynote

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

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NLADA Annual Conference

IEMI Executive Director Premal Dharia shared thoughts at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association’s Annual Conference, on a panel entitled “Abolitionists, Public Defenders, and Prison Reformers: Challenges and Opportunities for Collaboration.”

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Beyond Gideon

IEMI’s publication Inquest produced a special series on the future of public defense, with a lead essay by Executive Director Premal Dharia.

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