The summer before Devshi Mehrotra’s senior year at the University of Chicago, she read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. After reading the book, she felt both angry and inspired to think about how she could be a change agent in her community.
“Reading about the public defense system, I felt I had to do something. Of course, I didn’t know how I could address all the systemic issues,” said Mehrotra, SB ’19, SM ’19. “But, there are other issues, like public defenders being overburdened with caseloads and an infrastructure that isn’t allowing them to do a better job. That’s an area where I could try to do something.”
Five months before graduating with degrees in computer science, she and fellow UChicago College student Leslie Jones-Dove, SB ’19, founded JusticeText, an audiovisual evidence management platform designed to produce fairer criminal justice outcomes by expediting the review of police body camera footage, interrogation videos, jail calls, and more.
The duo came up with the idea after visiting the tech team at the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, where they learned that while the amount of video evidence skyrocketed between 2014 and 2019, developing tools to review and process it had flat lined.
“There are transcription products geared specifically to doctors or journalists, but across the legal field, largely there were no tools that had taken hold,” said Mehrotra. “The public defenders in Cook County weren’t using anything. When we surveyed 70 public defenders across the United States, 92 percent of them said they go through all that video discovery by manual review”—many only gaining access to it mere days before trial.
JusticeText uses speech-to-text machine learning algorithms to transcribe video footage evidence, speeding up pre-trial preparation and helping overburdened and under-resourced public defenders better defend their clients. Mehrotra and Jones-Dove started building their first prototype in March 2019, which eventually included a tagging system that makes it easier to categorize content by evidence type, edit and pull out important clips, and track the workflow process.
To date, JusticeText has received $320,000 in funding, including a Tarrson Social Venture Fellowship, the capstone social entrepreneurship resource at the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Founded with support from Ron Tarrson, ‘72 (XP-31) and John Edwardson, ’72, the fellowship provides funding and mentorship to graduating UChicago students or recent alumni while they raise capital for their social enterprise.
Other startup backers include the Stand Together Ventures Lab and a $160,000 contract with the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission for a roll-out to 125 public defenders across the state.
Now based in California, JusticeText’s small staff consists of Mehrotra, Jones-Dove, two contract engineers, and a couple of interns. They’ve opened the platform to 300 public defenders across nine pilot programs, including in New York City, Atlanta, Tulsa, and Washington, D.C., and they hope to fully launch within the next 30 days.
The Tarrson Fellowship has been a boon to Mehrotra since, in addition to funding, it has enabled her to connect with more people at UChicago who are focused on civic tech and the intersection of criminal justice reform and philanthropy.
“JusticeText is already seeing a lot of momentum behind their idea—notably being named to Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ list,” said Will Colegrove, the Rustandy Center’s senior associate director of the Edwardson Social Entrepreneurship Program. “Devshi’s team has shown they know how to not just come up with an idea, but actually research, develop, and execute on it. This is creating real impact on an important issue in the criminal justice system. The Rustandy Center is proud to support their work.”
While they are only just beginning to send out surveys to track impact—how much time lawyers save, if they feel more prepared, if fewer trial dates get postponed—anecdotally they’re hearing that some attorneys who spent over 10 hours per month reviewing video evidence have cut that time in half.
“When there is dashcam, bodycam, or cellphone footage, public defenders often don’t have the resources to digest it all. That’s what makes JusticeText so unique,” said Adwoa Ghartey-Tagoe Seymour, assistant general counsel with Cox Enterprises, who has mentored JusticeText through its participation with Cox’s Social Impact Accelerator for startups, powered by TechStars. “You can imagine the impact when public defenders are getting ready for trial and if they don’t have the manpower to review all that footage to assist with putting forth the best defense, JusticeText fills in that gap.”
Mehrotra says their goal is to get two government contracts, at either the state or county level, by the end of the year. Within the next six to eight months, they hope to launch to more legal aid groups (two are already using the platform) and the private criminal defense community, as well as raise a round of seed funding.
“Ultimately, I want to be able to serve every public defender in the United States, and to make a sizable contribution to their workloads and the quality of outcomes for defendants in need,” Mehrotra said. “Serving every state with JusticeText would be a dream come true.”
Read more about Devshi Mehrotra on the UChicago College website.