Catalyst Grant Program Insights Using Technology to Support Indigent Defense in New York City
Evelyn F. McCoy, Susan Nembhard
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Man with fist raised holding 'more mentoring, less punishment' sign.

The criminal legal system disproportionately arrests and incarcerates Black and Brown people and people with low incomes. The fines and fees associated with system involvement can exacerbate these disparities and entrench people in poverty and financial insecurity. Indigent defense systems exist to provide counsel to people who cannot afford their own lawyers, a right guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. But indigent defense systems across the United States face many challenges, including staff shortages, unsustainable workloads, and disparate federal funding. Black and Brown defendants bear the brunt of these challenges and experience the most disparate case outcomes. With funding from the Catalyst Grant Program, the nonprofit Youth Justice Network collaborated with the New York Office of Court Administration, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, and the 18B Assigned Counsel Panel to develop a mobile application on Microsoft’s Power Apps to aid assigned counsel in supporting their clients.

Indigent Defense and the 18B Assigned Counsel Panel in New York City

Indigent defense refers to criminal defense services for people who cannot afford their own lawyers. Though it varies by state, it is typically provided through either public defender organizations or through individually assigned counsel. In New York City, indigent defense services are provided by (1) the Legal Aid Society, (2) by one of five borough defender organizations, or (3) by individual attorneys on the 18B Assigned Counsel Panel, which comprises private attorneys assigned by the Office of Court Administration to support indigent clients. The 18B Panel Administrators are housed in the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Assigned counsel in New York City face specific challenges in supporting their clients. Unlike the public defender organizations, as attorneys in private practice, they do not have in-house access to social workers and other resources. They are often assigned some of the most complex and seriously charged cases and cases that result in longer periods of detention and/or are punishable by imprisonment.

Moreover, in a system as large as New York City, there are inherent delays and communication challenges that can delay case processing, and these delays disproportionately affect indigent defendants. Delays in case processing result from a complex combination of factors and can extend lengths of stay for defendants detained pending trial, who in New York City are almost exclusively Black and Brown defendants detained on Rikers Island.

Youth Justice Network recognized this as an opportunity to further support 18B attorneys through the use of technology and thereby enhance and improve defender-based services, especially for clients who are most likely to be detained for extended periods: Black and Brown young indigent defendants. One strategy for delivering on this goal was to develop technology that could help to accelerate case processing and increase supports and subject area experts for attorneys available earlier on in the case process. Specifically, Youth Justice Network developed an application on Microsoft Power Apps designed to accelerate approval of an attorney’s assignment by the 18B Panel Administrators (after the courts have determined that counsel is to be assigned) and facilitate assigned attorneys’ requests/approvals for expert services (social workers, investigators, mental health supports, etcetera) earlier in the process.

While it is the courts which are responsible for making determinations about indigent representation and informing the 18B Panel Administrators, the information and approval processes are not done electronically. Communication between components of the criminal legal system, attorneys, and the 18B Panel Administrators could be slow and particularly concerning for people detained on Rikers Island, as expediting the connection between attorney and client is at the core of due process.

Developing the App

After it received funding, Youth Justice Network’s first step was to create a stakeholder group to inform and advise on the development of a technology. That group met every two weeks over nine months to collaborate on the app.

The Youth Justice Network team also received training and support from Slalom, a private firm experienced in technology implementation. Together, they built the app on Microsoft’s Power Apps and engaged in an iterative process of revisions based on continuous feedback from the stakeholder group. Stakeholders could beta test the app before it was rolled out and identified design issues and components that should be added for the user experience. The collective expertise of the many partners, who included staff at system-level agencies and technological experts, and the Youth Justice Network staff’s decades of advocacy work and service provision provided unique perspectives on policy, technology, and social justice.

Lessons Learned

Deep subject matter expertise about the criminal legal system should lead technology developments, not the other way around. Part of this project’s early success derived from Youth Justice Network’s decades of advocating for and providing services to community members involved in the criminal legal system. Its expertise drove the technology innovation and set a strong foundation for how the app could be useful to 18B attorneys, whose on-the-ground experience also informed its design. We often see technology developed and then retroactively fit to practitioners’ needs or discarded altogether. In this case, local grassroots leaders identified the need first, which helped ensure the application would be relevant and useful for local attorneys.

Tapping external technological support can help build staff members’ technological capacity. Slalom provided Youth Justice Network’s staff technical assistance and training to help them build the app on Microsoft’s Power Apps, which helped staff learn new skills and enhanced the nonprofit’s technological capacity for future work. Like many service providers and advocacy organizations, Youth Justice Network has limited capacity to support advanced technology and data work, especially alongside competing priorities. Assistance from an organization of experts solely focused on implementing technology solutions was therefore instrumental. Slalom’s presence was also helpful at stakeholder meetings, where its staff could help Youth Justice Network understand feedback and translate it into technological changes in the app.

Engaging stakeholders in the design process is key to creating a usable product, and including them from the initial idea creation is ideal. The Youth Justice Network team developed the Network 18B App with a user-centered design, meaning they focused on the needs of attorneys and clients during each phase of the design process and had these key stakeholders influence the app’s design. This approach was critical to ensuring the app would be responsive to stakeholders’ needs and the people who would use it would buy in. While the courts were engaged as part of the application process, all stakeholders, including Youth Justice Network staff, noted it would have been more effective and sustainable had they all been engaged before funding was received so that the needs and ideas of all stakeholders could be incorporated before the design process began. In a large and complex environment like New York City’s criminal and juvenile legal system, this proved especially true and especially important for the app’s use and sustainability.

Next Steps

While the administration is not moving forward with this pilot project, the work continues. Youth Justice Network is using what it learned to explore opportunities to use the app in other settings. They are seeking alternative jurisdictions that could use or tailor the app to accelerate defense assignment and connection to resources. This project showed that there are ways to develop technology to improve indigent defense and defender-based services, an overlooked area of the criminal legal system, and that grassroots organizations are well-suited to lead these efforts.

Visit the Catalyst Grant Program Insights page for more resources and stories about the grantees.   


Image courtesy of Messiah Ramkissoon, Youth Justice Network

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Racial and ethnic disparities Crime and justice analytics Racial and ethnic disparities in criminal justice
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center Justice Policy Center