UChicago alumni turn class project into tool for public defenders

For launching JusticeText, Leslie Jones-Dove and Devshi Mehrotra named to Forbes 30 Under 30

In 2019, a pair of undergraduate computer science majors at the University of Chicago set out to complete their capstone for the College course, “Entrepreneurship in Technology.” They never anticipated that their project would later serve public defenders around the country.

Shortly after the class ended, Leslie Jones-Dove and Devshi Mehrotra co-founded JusticeText, software that generates automated transcripts of body camera footage, interrogation videos, jail calls and more. JusticeText expedites the pre-trial preparation time and allows public defenders to analyze crucial data.

“When we turned in our final projects for class, we weren't the only ones who had been moved by the mission we uncovered through the course of the quarter,” said Jones-Dove, SB’19. “Our peers voted our pitch as the class favorite and that helped us decide that we might want to pursue this a little more.” 

Two years after completing their capstone project, their efforts earned them a spot on the 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 list, which recognized their contributions in social impact.  

As a student in the College, Mehrotra, SB’19, SM’19, held leadership positions in compileHer, an organization dedicated to computer science education for young girls. She also frequented the Institute of Politics, serving as senior chair of the IOP Student Advisory Board and participating in the Sargent Shriver Fellowship for Leadership in Public Service. The IOP later provided financial support and mentorship for JusticeText, and helped Jones-Dove and Mehrotra facilitate a connection with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Mehrotra also earned a Tarrson Social Venture Fellowship from Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, which provides funding and advising to graduating UChicago students or recent alumni so they can work on their social ventures full time after graduation.

Like Mehrotra, Jones-Dove also volunteered with compileHer and participated in various campus activities, including serving as the social chair of the Organization of Black Students at UChicago. He also served as president of Edge, an intercollegiate entrepreneurship board, and organized fashion shows for MODA, UChicago’s fashion-focused student organization.

After graduating from UChicago, Mehrotra and Jones-Dove continued to work together on JusticeText part-time despite living on opposite sides of the world. Mehrotra continued to pursue her interdisciplinary interests in technology and public service as a Schwarzman Scholar in Beijing, China, while Jones-Dove worked full-time in New York City.

In the beginning stages, JusticeText grew incrementally. But when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic required that Mehrotra end her experience abroad and come back to the U.S., she  was inspired by rising national conversations about racial justice to pursue JusticeText full-time. 

In June 2020, Mehrotra and Jones-Dove hit the ground running, with Jones-Dove dedicating himself to the engineering efforts of JusticeText and Mehrotra managing outreach. 

The two alumni are currently piloting their software with public defense agencies in Houston, Cincinnati, New York and Washington, D.C. They have also raised funding from venture capital firms such as 500 Startups, Techstars and Stand Together Ventures Lab. Jones-Dove and Mehrotra hope to leverage technology to make an impact on criminal justice reform by helping public defenders manage data more efficiently.

“Public defenders are responsible for representing 80 percent of Americans who have been charged with a crime,” said Mehrotra. “However, little investment has gone into creating infrastructure to catalog, review or store the massive amount of audio or video evidence public defenders use to advocate for their clients.”

These recordings can be critical in allowing attorneys to identify instances of police misconduct or coercion. As a solution, JusticeText, allows public defenders to upload their discovery, and it generates an automated transcript with summary keywords and timestamps that can be easily rereviewed and annotated.

Jones-Dove and Mehrotra hope to build lifelong relationships with the attorneys they have begun to work alongside and to grow their programs to assist as many public defense agencies across the country as they can. 

“Hopefully one day we can spark a broader conversation surrounding inequity in the criminal justice system,” said Mehrotra. “But today we're just focused on the day-to-day bug fixing, managing accounting challenges and becoming better builders and better leaders overall.”

—This story was first published on the College website.