Criminal justice is one of the topical issues in America, particularly among Blacks. According to Harvard University, while Blacks make up only an eighth of American adults, they represent one-third of the incarcerated population. What is more, Black Americans are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and given harsher sentences than white Americans who commit the same crimes, the university said in a publication.
This reality is very familiar to Leslie Jones-Dove and Devshi Mehrotra, the co-founders of JusticeText. The two computer science majors from the University of Chicago (UChicago) decided to venture into the public defender sector of the legal market to help improve the criminal justice system following the deaths of two Black men at the hands of police.
As freshmen at the University of Chicago, the duo became aware of dash cam footage that was released showing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being fatally shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke on October 20, 2014.
The released footage told a different story from what police said, alleging that McDonald had “lunged at police” before the officer fired shots. The incident sparked mass protest but the duo was inspired to start working on JusticeText.
“Across the country, there are a number of public defender’s offices where they’re underpaid and overworked,” Jones-Dove told AfroTech. “It means that they have a lot less time to review increasing volumes of video evidence, body cam, jail calls, etc. That means some crucial information, like the information used to serve justice in this Laquan McDonald situation, goes [unseen].”
“We thought by helping public defense review mountains of video audio evidence, we might help the poor that kind of rely on their services, thereby affecting the surrounding community at least,” he further noted.
They started building their startup after completing their bachelor’s degrees from the University of Chicago. JusticeText is a software designed to increase accountability by helping public defenders filter through thousands of hours of police interactions that are captured on video every single day, it says on its website. “We generate automated transcripts that synthesize hours of footage and deliver 50% in time-savings to our users,” it adds.
The duo managed their startup as a side hustle because Mehrotra enrolled in graduate school while Jones-Dove secured a full-time position as a software engineer at Google. However, they returned to their project on a full-time basis in 2021 following the death of George Floyd.
“Neither of us actually planned to work on JusticeText full-time immediately after UChicago,” Mehrotra said. “And in 2020, all the national reckoning that was taking place around George Floyd’s murder was a huge catalyst for me to be like, ‘Forget it. I’m not gonna apply for a job.’ There’s no better time for me to be taking a bet on myself, taking a bet on this idea, and seeing where we can take it.”
Since its launch, JusticeText has processed 15,000 hours of footage. Recently, the duo raised $3 million in venture capital from investors that include Reid Hoffman, Michael Tubbs, and John Legend.