At a glance

As a solution partner for the Microsoft Justice Reform Initiative Catalyst Grant Program, we helped Youth Justice Network develop a mobile Microsoft Power App that speeds public defense attorneys’ contact with and connection to their clients. It’s a tool that could mean more equitable representation for young people in the legal system.

What we did

  • Microsoft Power Apps
  • UX design
  • Azure credits strategy
  • Public and social impact
  • Low-code app

The right to counsel

Founded on the school floor of a New York City jail, Youth Justice Network (YJN) is a 33-year-old nonprofit that serves young people involved in the justice system. YJN participants are young people of color, who are vastly and disproportionately overrepresented in the city’s jails. The organization offers supports inside and outside custody, and helps when young people are charged with crimes, have pending cases, and can’t make bail.

Low-income youth are often stuck in detention waiting to meet their attorneys—and may not even know if an attorney has been assigned to represent them. In New York City, indigent defense spans five boroughs, and representation is offered through a combination of public defender organizations and individually assigned counsel, known as 18B attorneys.

Public defender organizations have in-house social workers and other resources more readily available. In contrast, 18B attorneys are often representing complex, felony charge cases on their own, against the backdrop of a bureaucratic system of assignment and access that depends on web-based communication, phone calls, emails, and mail.

YJN applied for funds from the Catalyst Grant Program with a vision of using technology to help facilitate and accelerate communication in the critical early stages of the case process for young detained defendants.

Tech for social good

The Catalyst Grant comes from a collaboration between the Microsoft Justice Reform Initiative and the Urban Institute, in an effort to support projects that use data and tech to address racial injustice and create a more equitable justice system.

The team at YJN was ecstatic at the news their organization was chosen as the grant money recipient. “Honestly, we didn’t expect it because it was a national competition,” says Chris Pahigian, executive director of YJN.

Shoba Nair, director of research and evaluation at YJN at that time, spearheaded the effort. “We formed a core stakeholder group, which was crucial to the process,” she says. This group of practitioners focused on identifying key points of communication in the case process that could be improved with a mobile app. As their work progressed, Slalom joined the effort and helped guide the group.

The attorneys saw the potential of how easy it would be to communicate through the app … They felt a tangible difference in how it can help.

An app for attorneys

Slalom is proud to be a Microsoft solution partner for the Catalyst Grant Program. Nonprofit grantees are under no obligation to use Microsoft solutions—or lean on partners like us for technical expertise. YJN, however, took advantage of all available resources through the grant.

With the idea for the app cemented, a small user group that included Nair and a few attorneys worked to create a bare-bones prototype. Initially, they started down a path toward a traditional, code-heavy mobile app with a YJN volunteer developer, but with Slalom asking questions about YJN’s needs and providing guidance, the nonprofit decided that Power Apps was the most logical tool.

Gautham Sripathi, a Slalom solution architect, worked with Nair and the developer to teach them how to use to Power Apps, a low-code, no-code solution. Armed with this knowledge, YJN built a new version in Power Apps on its own. The Slalom UX team then created wireframes for a more refined, clickable prototype. “The app has two parts,” says Sripathi. “One part is for the attorneys to request resources, and the second is for the city government side managers who review the requests and approve them.” Our consultants also helped YJN leverage Azure credits to use the app.

Lawyer on the phone reading documents on her desk Lawyer on the phone reading documents on her desk

Pilot potential

The 18B attorneys in YJN’s pilot group found the clickable prototype “very easy and intuitive to use,” says Nair. “They immediately saw the potential of how easy it would be to communicate through the app, and we were bombarded with questions about other features they want to add. They feel a tangible difference in how it can help.” The public defenders enthusiastically mentioned features that would avoid paper—such as using the app to fill out forms and take pictures.

There are many places that can really benefit from this app. Ultimately maybe even the whole world of public defense can benefit.

Everyone agrees the app has a lot of potential to speed case-processing time. Complexity in the New York City jurisdiction led to challenges in adoption, but it has also sparked valuable discussions on finding common ground. “The fact that the app has catalyzed and caused forward movement and excitement has been a real ROI,” says Pahigian.

YJN is now eager to partner with other nonprofits and jurisdictions to bring the power of this technology to public defender communities. Indigent defense systems across the United States face profound challenges, including staff shortages, unsustainable workloads, and disparate federal funding—and young people of color continue to experience the most disparate case outcomes.

“There are many jurisdictions with far fewer resources than New York City has,” says Pahigian. “There are places that can really benefit from this app. Ultimately maybe even the whole world of public defense can benefit.”

Radical change, one attorney at a time

YJN has every reason to be optimistic. After all, it has a demonstrated history of influencing positive long-term change through its “one youth at a time” approach. Just one low-code app could be the beginning of something big.

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