August 17, 2021

Equipping public defenders with a tech solution to improve the criminal justice system

JusticeText CEO Devshi Mehrotra shares how leveling the playing field for public defenders is key to lasting criminal justice reform.

Despite the fact that 80 percent of all criminal cases involve video evidence, the vast majority of public defenders lack the bandwidth to review all relevant footage. But JusticeText has a solution. Designed by Devshi Mehrota and co-founder Leslie Jones-Dove, the online platform makes it easier for attorneys to incorporate critical audiovisual evidence in their defenses, giving more people a fair shot in the justice system. JusticeText automates transcripts for videos, including body camera footage, interrogations, and courtroom proceedings — speeding up pre-trial preparation and helping defense attorneys give better counsel to their clients.

Last year, Stand Together Ventures Lab invested in JusticeText to accelerate the adoption of this affordable solution. The investment allowed JusticeText to hire engineering support and freed Devshi to build a stronger foundation with public defenders.

Devshi’s advice for budding entrepreneurs is this: “Don’t build in isolation.” In this interview, Devshi speaks to the company’s successes thus far and explains the key role public defenders play in restorative justice.

Was there an “aha” moment that led you to conceptualize the idea for JusticeText?

I spent a lot of time as an undergrad learning about criminal justice reform, particularly policing. After doing many internships in the tech industry, it was clear to me that I wanted to find some way to use the skills that I was learning to address racial inequality.

We went directly to the source — the Cook County public defenders — and asked them what their greatest challenge was. We were told that there’s been this explosion of data, of video and audio recordings, in law enforcement. On one hand [that’s] incredible, because there’s potential for greater transparency and accountability. But for public defenders, their intensive caseloads are now even more time intensive because there’s no infrastructure to go through all of this data.

Why did you choose to focus on public defenders?

Public defenders get left out of a lot of conversations and policy decisions around the broader criminal justice reform effort. We’re missing such a key opportunity for our justice system to be more restorative and rehabilitative, because these defenders have such tight connections to each and every client that they represent.

The reason JusticeText started focusing on the defense community is to prove that this is a part of our government worth investing in. I hope moving forward there’s going to be an equal number of resources being offered to public defenders as there are to prosecutors and law enforcement.

Why did you choose to partner with Stand Together Ventures Lab?

The fact that the Stand Together community has already supported so many other incredible organizations that are fighting for reform in their counties’ criminal justice systems has been really helpful. We feel like we’re part of a bigger group and a bigger coalition. I think the main benefit that we’ve gotten is these type of relationships. Secondly, I think from a business standpoint, having Brian and Sihyun to be able to talk about our marketing strategy and to think about product priorities, and to just be able to riff off of them and treat them like mentors, has also been invaluable in my experience.

Why was the timing of the partnership with Stand Together Ventures Lab so critical?

We got our investment in [late] 2020. At that time our main priority was product development. We essentially had to go from our MVP, to something that could be readily be deployed in a government. And so, Leslie and I both spent a lot of time on engineering, but we realized that we had to spend a lot of more of our time on building relationships and just getting our tool out there.

We also realized it was critical to bring on an engineer at the time. And engineers are definitely a cost-intensive investment so I think it lined up very, very well. It just gave us the freedom to be able to focus for the next six to eight months on building a really high quality product, while I started really building the foundation for connecting with public defenders and private criminal defense attorneys. It was just very reassuring to have a bigger support system around us.

What’s been one of the most rewarding success stories you’ve heard from early adopters of the platform?

One investigator in Minnesota had a high volume of body camera footage that she and her attorney had to go through for a particular case. They didn’t have the bandwidth to listen to all of it. Her defendant was being charged with a crime and having to wait for weeks — if not months — while their attorney was swamped with other material.

But since the investigator was piloting JusticeText at the time, she put all of that video into the system and identified a critical police statement, which revealed that the police officer didn’t believe her client should be charged. The investigator was quickly able to create a transcript and share it with the prosecutors, bringing her closer to having the case dismissed.

What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs looking to tackle intractable social problems?

I spent years before starting JusticeText trying to learn about the criminal justice system. It was so important for me to spend those years learning and listening to get a real understanding of the complexity of this issue. One thing I’ve noticed with the tech industry is that people love hearing about a cool new technology and try to force it to address something that doesn’t actually need solving. So I say, fall in love with a community that you really care about and deeply understand the needs of that community before developing a solution.