Founded by Jelani Anglin, Good Call is a tech hybrid taking on mass incarceration in the U.S. by providing early access to legal support. Though currently only 1% of people have access to counsel at the point of arrest, Good Call’s free hotline service connects arrestees to a free attorney and can also update family members on their situation. Here, Jelani tells Ashoka’s Simon Stumpf why early contact with an attorney is critical and discusses how tech can help dismantle the prison-industrial complex.
Simon Stumpf: Take us back to the beginning of your work, Jelani. What did you see that others didn’t?
Jelani Anglin: I was arrested at 16 years old. My friends and I — all of us young Black men — were purportedly being too loud on a train. It was a traumatizing incident, but it led me to connect with other people in my community who had been arrested. What did we all have in common? We all wished we had been connected to legal counsel sooner in the process. We wished we had gotten some support from an attorney and known what to do before being interrogated. Because the consequence of people not getting the counsel they deserve, not getting a fair shot in our legal system, is sometimes getting their whole life taken away.
Stumpf: You’ve described Good Call’s offer as an “early legal intervention.” How does the arrest process work and why is early intervention so critical?
Anglin: When you’re arrested, you’re brought to a precinct, stripped of your belongings and given the opportunity to make a call, but only to a number you can remember off the top of your head — and how many of us recall any numbers without our cell phones, right? So this often results in not having any type of support. Folks are interrogated by police and coerced into signing statements under duress. With Good Call, what we’re providing is immediate access to an attorney when folks first arrive in the precinct. That attorney can invoke their client’s sixth amendment right to representation and stop the interrogation process until a lawyer is present, giving folks the chance to make a better defense.
Stumpf: What technology have you built to facilitate that intervention?
Anglin: It starts with a hotline number, which a family member or the arrested party can call directly. The hotline operator informs us of the arrest, and that allows us to connect the person facing charges with an attorney who can stop the interrogation process. That also allows us to send the client’s information to the attorney who will be at the arraignment shift.
When an attorney only sees their client at the arraignment shift, that gives them about five minutes to come up with a defense. With our technology, the attorney receives all the client’s basic information early on, allowing more time to gather pertinent details and mount a defense.
Another key piece of our technology is an emergency contact database. Folks can save emergency contacts ahead of time, in the event that they are arrested. On that same call with an attorney, they can actually send a text message to their loved ones via the attorney, letting them know of the arrest.
Stumpf: How is it working? Are you gaining users?
Anglin: We’re currently getting a couple hundred calls a month, but we want to do more. We’re a scrappy organization, and we’d like to grow our outreach team. We’re seeing lots of word-of-mouth, organic growth. This year we put up billboards across New York City. Each billboard with the hotline number brought us about 70,000 impressions a week. And we’re not saying that everyone who read that number is going to get arrested in the future, but just having people know this resource is out there — that’s the narrative shift we’re trying to create.
Stumpf: Are you seeing a political shift in favor of your work?
Anglin: Yeah, we’re at the beginning of an understanding that there needs to be more support, sooner. For example, California Policy Lab did a study finding that when folks have access to legal representation, it increases the likelihood of them being released on their own recognizance by over 50%. So while we’re still behind the mark, we’re seeing a shift across the country on the policy side. Three states have passed legislation mandating early access to counseling. Fifteen more states have recently put it forward.
Stumpf: How, as a “scrappy” organization, are you scaling your solution to land in more places?
Anglin: For the past six years, we’ve done this as a nonprofit and we were lucky enough to raise over $4 million in donations and grants. But now, after doing the research and development, we believe that we can scale faster as a hybrid non-profit/for-profit entity. We can hire folks who have been formally incarcerated, because those with proximity to the issue are the ones closest to the solution. Raising money from impact investors as a for-profit, hiring more engineers and building more technology will allow us to really grow and provide different types of support.
For example, we’re starting to receive calls from the border around immigration issues. Why not use our technology in other situations that are arrest-adjacent? There are ACS issues, immigration issues, housing issues that may result in arrests. Folks who are marginalized in these areas are also lacking support. So our technology could be used to put the power in their hands.
Stumpf: How will things look different in five years, 10 years?
Anglin: We have plans to build an app that will help folks navigate better through the system. It’s wild to think that today you can track a pizza, but you can’t find a loved one if they are arrested. There’s more innovation on the side of incarcerating humanity than there is for helping folks get out.
Stumpf: Jelani, what’s powerful about your contribution here is that it calls out where the system is seemingly designed to fail people. And you’ve talked about the necessity of pushing policy changes, not just waiting for this scale of incarceration to cave under its own weight.
Anglin: Sadly, it’s never going to cave under its own weight. It’s a for-profit system in a capitalist country — a booming business. There are over 12 million individuals incarcerated every year, 500,000 sitting in jail right now without even being convicted of a crime. Taxpayers pay over $14 billion every year to incarcerate these individuals. Prison labor, which is close to slavery, is helping to drive our economy.
This system feeds off of people being poor. Your best defense is simply to be affluent, to have a lawyer at your fingertips. It’s all those folks without resources who are the grist to the mass incarceration system. So if we want to slow the system and eventually kill it, it starts at the precinct.
This interview was condensed by Ashoka.