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JusticeText co-founder on technology building for public defenders

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Public defender offices across the United States are short of funds and funds. Moreover, criminal cases undertaken by public defenders can involve sifting hours of visual and audio evidence.

A pair of software engineers are building apps for that.

Devshi Mehrotra is a co-founder of JusticeText, a software platform that helps public defenders more effectively review hours of audio and video evidence.

Devshi Mehrotra and Leslie Jones-Dove started developing JusticeText, an audiovisual management software platform, in 2019 when they were students at the University of Chicago. The platform automates transcripts and uses other tools to spotlight important information, allowing public defenders and defendant lawyers to more effectively investigate hours of video and audio evidence. It is designed to be able to. Through its pilot program, JusticeText has partnered with public defender offices in regions such as New York, Washington DC, and Maryland.

JusticeText CEO Mehrotra said the idea for the technology came from the criminal justice reform efforts that took place in Chicago and throughout college. She added that she was shocked by the reality of the public defender system featured in Michelle Alexander’s book “New Jim Crow: Mass Imprisonment in the Age of Colorblindness.”

However, JusticeText’s specific goals did not begin to form until she and Jones Dove took entrepreneurial classes as seniors. Mehrotra said he met with Cook County’s Public Defense Agency and used the class as an “excuse” to find the challenges they faced.

“As two computer scientists, we had no clue as to what the needs of a public defender were,” Mehrotra said. “We asked what we could do to help.”

Mehrotra said he began full-time software development in June 2020 after earning a master’s degree. The start-up, which includes Jones-Dove and two contract engineers, has secured grants from the University of Chicago’s Political Institute and investments from programs such as 500 Startups and Stand Together Ventures Lab. According to Mehrotra, the product is still in pilot mode, but the official launch date is approaching.

In an interview with Law360, Mehrotra’s origins, how she uses the software to support public defenders, and why she ultimately decided to devote herself to this product full-time. Talked about. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Can you explain the origin story behind JusticeText?

Much of my background and co-founder is in software engineering, but when I was a student, I spent a lot of time actually engaging in the activities that are taking place in the city over criminal justice reform. I have come to the point that it is what I was thinking every day, every day. Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” was one of the books that influenced me a lot. She wrote a few pages about the public defender, but I was shocked because I knew very little about the importance of the public defender. Also, I knew little or no about the incredible structural challenges it faces.

At that time, I was angry as a bystander, but I really wanted to do something. I didn’t know what to do, but Leslie and I decided to take an entrepreneurial-focused class together. I started using it as my excuse. We literally appeared in the office of the Public Defenders and during our first conversation with them, we discovered the issue we are currently focusing on. It’s about dealing with incredible hours of audio and video evidence and trying to understand it.

You and your co-founder are both majors in computer science. What was your greatest interest in computer science? Also, please tell me how to tackle social issues using specific tools.

I was really excited about the space of machine learning and AI. In the summer of freshmen, I went to China to work in the lab, and the project they gave me was a computer vision project. I didn’t know what computer vision was or what the field of machine learning was. But I started reading myself, started reading a lot of open source material, did tutorials, and fell in love. I was very excited about the field. Later summer I worked for Google Brain like Google’s AI team. It helped take my interests and passions to a completely different level. And I’ve seen many applications where this technology can have a social impact.

I noticed a great deal of resources and innovation, but when I returned to school I was surprised that the same energy was not directed to public institutions. It was definitely an opportunity to try something about it.

After understanding the challenges facing public defender offices in relation to audio and video evidence, what were the next steps taken to create JusticeText?

Digesting written text is much faster than listening to a long audio stream, so I realized that one simple step we could take was to post the information. And I quickly knew that there were many open source tools for digesting audio and audio streams. And we were like, “What do you know? We can start making the first prototype.” I went back to school and started making my first prototype.

We were very fortunate to have the Cook County Public Defenders Office invite us to present the first prototype to a group of 10 public defenders and provide feedback. .. They were kind enough to take the time, so we went back to school and started creating version 1.0 of JusticeText. That was our immediate next step.

How has JusticeText evolved since its first prototype and what features have it provided to public defenders?

When a lawyer logs in to JusticeText and uploads audio or video to the system, an automatic transcript is generated. Every word in that transcript is tagged with a specific part of the video. You can click on any word you see and go exactly when it is said. You can highlight the words you are interested in and immediately export them as MP4 clips. You can take a time stamp clip. It also makes it very easy to tag and organize your data. It can be organized by speaker and type of evidence. This is a productivity tool for performing audio and video detection as quickly as possible.

How does the Public Defender Office use your product?

At Queens, we have created accounts for all 60 lawyers in our office. In Washington, DC, we have created accounts for about 15 investigators. One lawyer said he would first upload it to JusticeText before reviewing the body camera. I’m often imprisoned on a prison phone for hours a few days before a trial, so there’s another lawyer who uses it a lot on the prison phone.

The main area that needs to continue to improve is the accuracy of the transcript itself. If the audio quality is poor, there is little we can do.

What were you thinking when you finally decided to commit to this completely?

By the time I graduated, I was an intern at many big tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft. By the end of the last four years, it was very clear that it didn’t give me a sense of fulfillment. In college, I had so many agencies in my time, and the idea that after graduation I somehow have to give it up altogether is what I’m building , Separated from the consequences of what I’m working on, it was horrifying.

The idea of ​​working on JusticeText was just as scary. I was worried about that decision, but I felt like the world was collapsing and graduated. The resurgence of all the injustices that were happening under the Trump administration, the Black Lives Matter movement, made me very angry and frustrated, saying, “Don’t just sit down. I can live. I graduated recently, but I have no children to take care of. If not me, when would it be? ”It wasn’t an easy decision, but in the end it was. I think it played a big role in the leap.

What are your goals for this year and beyond?

It will be released soon, so getting out of pilot mode will be a big goal. We would like to deploy in at least two states. I think that is the goal we set ourselves. We have found that many of the challenges faced by private criminal defense lawyers are very similar to those of public defenders, and we would like to begin to see traction in the world of private criminal defense lawyers as well.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in access to the judiciary. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have a story idea about access to justice? Please contact us at [email protected]

-Edited by Catherine Lautenberg.

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