Posted by Cristina Ochoa on November 2, 2016
With a platform that connects incarcerated individuals with legal resources, AccessArc tied for first place in the 2016 John Edwardson, '72, Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC). Organized by the Social Enterprise Initiative (SEI), the SNVC is the social entrepreneurship track of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s nationally ranked Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC).
Founded by University of Chicago Law School students, Michael Savage, Vanessa Brown, and Darell Hayes, AccessArc seeks to mitigate the effects of mass incarceration by increasing accessibility to legal advocacy for currently incarcerated individuals and their families. In this Social Impact Snapshot, SEI caught up with Savage on what's next for AccessArc and the social venture's founder.
SEI: What was the inspiration behind AccessArc?
Michael Savage: All three of us were third-year Chicago Law students and were really interested in getting involved in communities of color, specifically on the issue of mass incarceration. We recognized a gap in legal services, and although none of us really had expertise in providing legal services in that space, we had looked at other models and figured that the integration of technology in that space would be extremely useful. The more people we talked to in the area, the more we realized this was true.
SEI: What specific issues does AccessArc address?
MS: I would say there’s a general distrust in the criminal justice system that stems from a lack of education and transparency around procedures in law. It’s a kind of black box, and we’re trying to open up that box so people have access and feel empowered in the criminal justice system.
SEI: What has been the biggest unforeseeable challenge for AccessArc?
MS: The biggest challenge for us is that we’re trying to implement and use technology in a space where there currently isn’t much technology present. We’re really paving the way for technology to streamline a lot of the processes that take forever to do. For example, getting in touch with an attorney is something that is difficult for an incarcerated individual, so any automation of these processes allows for big gains.
SEI: How did your experience in SNVC help propel your organization?
MS: The Social New Venture Challenge was an amazing experience. It allowed us to take in a lot of information at a fast pace and repeatedly revise a model of our product that we thought would work. The funding has also been extremely helpful. It’s allowed us to become incorporated and start speaking with software developers, giving us a lot of legitimacy when we go talk to other stakeholders in the community. Professors, faculty, and community members have also come to us interested in helping with our mission.
SEI: What have been your biggest assets in developing AccessArc?
MS: Our team’s passion is one of the biggest. We all have personal connections to this issue, whether it’s through loved-ones or communities that we belong to. We’ve seen how mass incarceration affects not only the individual but also families and, more largely, communities. The fact that this is also a bipartisan issue right now has also proved to help us. The need to reduce our prison size is one of the very few issues in today’s very polarized political climate that people on both aisles can agree on. Finally, we’ve done so much in such little time because of our connections through the SNVC and the law school, especially having access to tons of lawyers who are passionate about this issue.
SEI: What stage is AccessArc at now?
MS: While we are all employed full-time at law firms, AccessArc is something that we continue to work on in our free time. We’ve incorporated and are now applying to be a nonprofit, which takes a little bit of time, but in the meantime, we’re setting up our outreach streams and referral sources. We’ve also been revising our manual process, and we hope to gain 50 participants for our semi-manual pilot by the end of the year. In 2017, we hope to be fully automated and fundraise.
SEI: What are your long-term goals for AccessArc?
MS: Within five years, our goal is to navigate the different laws for post-conviction and innocence pleas that each state has in order to expand outside of Illinois. Eventually, we hope to become a national organization that can initiate systematic change in how our criminal justice system reintegrates people back into society, through the use of technology; we hope to educate people on the system and their rights within the system; and though much harder to measure, but just as important to us, we hope to increase trust and legitimacy in the criminal justice system among communities of color.
AccessArc is looking for either volunteer trainees or connections to referral agencies or community organizations that would like to partner with them. Email them at email@example.com.