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Bay Area criminal justice reformer wins MacArthur ‘genius award’

A Bay Area community organizer who started a Silicon Valley nonprofit that helps low-income families defend loved ones against criminal charges and navigate the justice system has been awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

Raj Jayadev, the 43-year-old co-founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, was among 25 people chosen Thursday as 2018 MacArthur Fellows, an annual award given to people who have shown extraordinary creativity and are deemed likely to continue to make important contributions to society.

Sarah Stewart, a planetary scientist at UC Davis, was also awarded a grant for her work explaining how celestial collisions create planets and satellites, like the Earth and its moon.

The $625,000 genius grants are given each year to innovators, artists, writers and social justice advocates across the country who have made a difference through their creative vision.

Jayadev, 43, of San Jose, won the prestigious grant for creating a system that helps families and local communities play an active role in the defense of relatives who are facing incarceration.

“This absolutely is recognition of a community journey,” said Jayadev, who was a nominee for the 2017 Visionary of the Year award, sponsored by The Chronicle. “It is a reflection of De-Bug’s philosophy … (and) the families that have the strength to challenge police abuse or never say quit when a loved one has been wrongly convicted.”

Jayadev started De-Bug in 2001 as a magazine that told the stories of poor and minority tech workers whose voices are rarely heard. The San Jose nonprofit, named after Silicon Valley assembly line workers who would “debug” malfunctioning products, began focusing on criminal justice after the 2004 killing in San Jose of Rodolfo Cardenas, a construction worker who was shot in the back by a state narcotics agent who mistook him for a wanted fugitive.

De-Bug began cataloging the racially disproportionate number of arrests in San Jose and pressured city leaders to change police practices. It has since evolved into a grassroots criminal justice reform movement that is spreading across the country.

Jayadev has been credited with helping broker reforms in the county’s bail system so that nonviolent offenders can avoid financial ruin while awaiting trial. He uses a “participatory defense” model that tries to harvest the collective power of the larger community to support defendants charged with a crime, even if it’s just to give the court a fuller story about their lives and loved ones.

“The methodology was developed over nine or 10 years as a response to people who came to us saying, ‘Our loved one is facing prosecution. What can we do?’” he said. “De-Bug uses the cumulative intelligence in the room to problem solve, innovate and work so that people facing incarceration don’t have to walk alone.”

Peter Fimrite
San Francisco Chronicle

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