Near the end of her time studying at the University of Chicago, Devshi Mehrotra read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
, written by author Michelle Alexander.
The computer science student says she was struck not only by Alexander’s description of the racism present in the criminal justice system but also by her briefly highlighting that there is a lack of investment in the crucial work that public defenders do. Mehrotra felt a call to action.
“As a technologist, I knew that I didn’t have the ability, the resources, the connections to be able to legislate bad and unjust policies away,” Mehrotra says. “And so I got started thinking: ‘Is there anything that I could potentially build that furthers my own values and furthers the work of public defenders?’”
Mehrotra and her classmate Leslie Jones-Dove, who was also passionate about criminal justice reform, contacted local public defenders in the Chicago area to see how the two technologists could potentially be of help.
They learned through ongoing dialogue with the Cook County public defender’s office that there was a growing amount of video and audio data being collected that public defenders could potentially use to advocate for their clients, such as body camera videos and jailhouse conversations. However, the public defenders reported there was very little infrastructure in place to assist them in effectively reviewing such evidence.
Mehrotra and Jones-Dove responded by developing a technology platform known as JusticeText, an AI-powered evidence management tool primarily geared toward public defenders.
JusticeText reviews audio and video files and generates a searchable transcript of the data. It does so by employing a speech-to-text machine learning algorithm that’s based off existing algorithms but has been improved through using the platform’s data, according to Mehrotra.
Users can click on words in the text generated and be taken to the spot in the audio or video where those words were voiced.
“It’s really a workflow tool for making sure that public defenders are able to make sense of and extract useful insights from audio and video as quickly as they can,” says Mehrotra, JusticeText’s CEO and co-founder.
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JusticeText began piloting its platform among public defenders last year. Minnesota and Colorado are among the locations where the technology is being tested at the state level, according to Mehrotra, while local pilot programs are underway in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
In addition to public defenders, paralegals and investigators in their offices can utilize JusticeText, too. Mehrotra says there have already been encouraging reports from the field.
A defense attorney in Georgia reported that when she wanted to share audio or video discovery with clients in detention, she would have to spend many hours in jail with her clients playing the recordings. JusticeText enabled her to create transcripts that she could leave with her clients to thoroughly review—even after their meetings concluded.
Meanwhile, an investigator working with public defenders in Minnesota reported that she used JusticeText to review many hours of police body camera footage. By examining the transcripts of the video that JusticeText generated, she was able to quickly identify a critical police statement, and the client’s case was later dismissed, according to Mehrotra.
“We started seeing that this is a tool that’s helping to ensure faster outcomes, better outcomes,” Mehrotra says. “The goal for us is to really just continue putting JusticeText in the hands of more people who could utilize it.”
Along those lines, JusticeText recently announced the signing of its first six-figure contract with the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission. The commission has signed on to roll out JusticeText to 125 public defenders for a yearlong period, according to Mehrotra, who called the contract a “big milestone.”
Mehrotra says JusticeText is also planning to actively market its platform to private criminal defense attorneys, including through the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“We recognize that this is a tool that is broadly applicable, and we are beginning to connect with folks in the private criminal defense community more and more now,” she says.
In This Podcast:
Devshi Mehrotra is the co-founder and CEO of JusticeText, an evidence management platform designed for use by public defense agencies. Mehrotra is a graduate of the University of Chicago, and her background includes leading applied machine learning projects at Google Brain, Microsoft Research and Stanford Law School.