An innovative CEO’s bold vision to transform criminal justice

An innovative CEO’s bold vision to transform criminal justice

Devshi Mehrotra is a founder and the CEO of JusticeText, an audiovisual evidence management system for public defenders. JusticeText automates transcripts for videos, including body camera footage, interrogations, and courtroom proceedings — speeding up pre-trial preparation and helping defense attorneys to give better counsel to their clients. Devshi founded JusticeText in 2019 with Leslie Jones-Dove, a classmate at the University of Chicago. In 2020, they secured funding from multiple investors, including Stand Together Ventures Lab (through STVL3, LLC), to scale their solution and improve the criminal justice system nationwide. They were recently named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list for social impact. 

In this interview, Devshi tells us about the experiences that led her to launch JusticeText, shares her vision for a more equitable legal process, and offers advice for other women pursuing their entrepreneurial calling.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

You studied computer science at the University of Chicago. What inspired you to pursue a venture focused on criminal justice?   

Attending college in Chicago played a big role in helping me decide what I wanted to spend my time and energy doing. My hometown, Irvine, Calif., has been ranked the safest city in America for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my personal experiences with the criminal justice system were very different from that of my friends and mentors in Chicago.

As I began taking courses and reading books that introduced me to the deeply unjust history of policing and incarceration in America, I felt compelled to engage with the reform efforts taking place across the city. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow left a particularly strong impression on me and was what first inspired my journey into the public defense space.

All of my internships in college were at large technology companies, and I was amazed by the energy, talent, and resources that were being directed towards building consumer products. But every time I came back to campus, it was disappointing to see schools trying to operate on a shoestring budget and mental health services being regularly defunded across the city. I then knew that my passion lies in public service and began exploring ways in which I could leverage my skillset to make impact on the issues I care about most.

During my senior year, I ended up taking a class with Leslie, who ultimately became my co-founder. We were tasked with developing a business idea, and I used this opportunity to begin exploring what role technology could play in the public defense system.

How did you identify what criminal justice challenge to address with JusticeText? 

We traveled from campus to our local public defenders office one day and started a conversation with them. We immediately discovered a big paradigm shift taking place within the justice system: the incredible volume of data that is now being collected from body camera footage, interrogation videos, jail calls, and more.

This content provides defense attorneys with a powerful tool to hold the state accountable, and ensures greater transparency against potential misconduct. However, there is little infrastructure in place to help defense attorneys make full use of this footage. Virginia’s Indigent Defense Commission did a study which revealed that 93 percent of public defenders in their state struggle to find time to review audio and video discovery.

Many states have discovery laws that are highly disadvantageous to public defenders. It’s common for defense attorneys to receive a data dump of hours and hours of jail calls just days before trial. While JusticeText does not address the structural inequities within the criminal legal system, we are working to enable attorneys to advocate for their clients in spite of it.

What are some of the biggest issues affecting women, and incarcerated individuals in general, that you’ve come across?  

The racial inequities within the criminal justice system are further compounded by its inhumane treatment of women, and particularly women of color. Over 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18, and the current system provides few opportunities for mothers to bond with their children. I recently read about a woman who had to give birth by herself in a Kentucky jail cell and was provided with no support throughout the process.

One of the other things we’ve come across in our work is that calls between incarcerated folks and their family members are expensive. And often the cost of payments — the cost of trying to be in touch with family members — falls on the folks who are incarcerated.

We make it so hard for people to maintain relationships with their family members or receive the healthcare that they rightly deserve. I think it’s a complete tragedy.

What does social entrepreneurship mean to you?  

As an undergraduate student, I spent a lot of my time involved in efforts to increase access to computer science education through a student organization called compileHer. We organized events like hackathons and coding workshops where girls could learn about technology in a safe and encouraging environment. The message I wanted to communicate to our students is that learning computer science is a powerful tool build the change you want to see in your community and your world.

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of my internships were at big tech companies, which helped me build my confidence and skillset. But I also realized that pursuing this career path was not fulfilling for me personally. The technology industry remains largely undiversified across race, class, and gender lines, and that lack of diversity has major implications on the challenges the industry is working to address. I still think it’s surreal that I was able to begin carving my own path immediately after graduating, and what social entrepreneurship represents to me is the opportunity to spend every day doing work that feels true to myself.

How do you hope to inspire other women through your own entrepreneurial success? What would you tell someone interested in pursuing a social venture? 

One thing that I will tell young women is that you have to build your skills and practice your trade. I have come across many people who question our ability to succeed, and it can be incredibly discouraging. But I know in my back pocket that I have the skills and passion to execute on my vision. If it fails, it fails. But until then, I’m going to keep iterating on it and making it better without asking anyone for permission. And that is incredibly powerful.

I’m not saying that everyone should learn how to code, but having a skill like that made all the difference in allowing me to take a leap immediately after college. You need to be incredibly proactive and develop an area of expertise — whether it’s in design, technology, marketing, or finance.

There is also a wealth of public information and accelerator programs to support young entrepreneurs. Once you find an idea that resonates with you, don’t sweat the small stuff. Everyone just figures it out as they go.

What excites you about the future of innovation in the criminal justice sector? 

The more I’ve learned about the public defense system, the more it shocks me that it is not a bigger part of the national conversation around criminal justice reform. I recently spoke with a public defender in Wisconsin who has been practicing for 40 years. He shared that there is massive potential for individuals with a technology background to partner with advocates on the frontline to create systems to advance justice.

It’s been exciting to see how building technology tools can have such a massive impact in the public sector. There’s a lot of unaddressed challenges, which means that there’s a lot of potential.

Want to learn more about JusticeText’s evidence management solution? Click here to read the case studies.  

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