During their senior year as computer science majors at the University of Chicago in 2019, Leslie Jones-Dove and Devshi Mehrotra, now both 24, partnered on a class project requiring them to generate a business idea involving technology and develop it throughout the quarter. After deciding they wanted to find a way to address the crisis of underfunded and overworked public defenders, they reached out to the Cook County, Illinois, public defender’s office to see how they could potentially be of help.
“The head of technology there just told us that they’re having a lot of trouble dealing with the increasing volumes of video and audio evidence, especially since police officers are wearing body cams more and more,” Jones-Dove recalls. The lack of technical infrastructure to process such evidence made it difficult for the public defenders in Illinois’ largest county to advocate for their clients as effectively as they would like, Jones-Dove and Mehrotra were told.
This information prompted them to develop a tool called JusticeText, which reviews video and audio files and generates searchable transcripts of them. The technology uses a speech-to-text machine learning algorithm to process data such as body camera videos and recordings of jailhouse conversations for users. Based on positive feedback, they decided to take JusticeText to market in the hopes of evening the playing field between better-resourced prosecutors’ offices and public defenders.
The company, which incorporated in April 2019, began making inroads with public defenders’ offices through the piloting of its technology, including Colorado testing it out at the state level. The Harris County Public Defender’s Office in Houston and the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia have used JusticeText on the local level, according to Mehrotra, the company’s CEO.
In 2021, JusticeText announced it had signed its first six-figure contract with a public defender’s office, which Mehrotra called a significant milestone. The Virginia Indigent Defense Commission signed on to roll out the tool to 125 public defenders, investigators and other staff across the state over a yearlong period, Mehrotra says.
Tracy Paner, the chief public defender at the Richmond Public Defender’s Office in Virginia, says the transcripts JusticeText generates from body camera videos have helped attorneys determine which ones to most carefully review.
She points to a hypothetical case in which there are 11 body camera videos relevant to an upcoming preliminary hearing. “I don’t have the luxury of time to necessarily watch 11, but I can definitely prioritize and watch three,” Paner says. “And if I can pick the right three, it’s going to make all the difference.” Attorneys in Paner’s office have also used JusticeText to create snippets of video they can show at trial, she says.
Matt Hanna, a supervisory investigator at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, says he appreciates how JusticeText provides a variety of ways to review audio and video files.
“I’ve found that being able to edit line-by-line transcription and using the notebook tool to take notes as you go—and have those notes timestamped automatically—have been the most beneficial features,” he says.
Both he and Paner also share that JusticeText helps them work more efficiently, which enables them to more zealously represent clients.
Overall, lawyers report JusticeText provides them 30% to 50% in time savings, according to the company’s website. “We think JusticeText can play a role in enabling attorneys to do what they do best, which is uncovering truth from the data and the discovery that is made available to them,” Mehrotra says.
She notes that federal public defenders’ offices also have used the tool, including the Federal Public Defender for the Northern District of Texas. Additionally, JusticeText has been working to market its platform to private criminal defense attorneys, says Jones-Dove, the chief technology officer.
Meanwhile, JusticeText and its co-founders have already garnered plenty of accolades and support. In September, JusticeText announced it was chosen as a recipient of Google’s Black Founders Fund and awarded $100,000 in nondilutive funding. MIT Solve, a social impact initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also named JusticeText to its 2021 Antiracist Technology in the U.S. class and awarded it $60,000. JusticeText’s co-founders say they plan to use the influx of funding to grow their engineering team and invest in digital marketing.
Jones-Dove and Mehrotra also try to make the most of their free time. Mehrotra enjoys traveling, listening to podcasts and watching plays or musicals. Jones-Dove also enjoys traveling, surfing, listening to audiobooks and learning Spanish.