Imagine you’re arrested and your cell phone is taken away. You have only few minutes to make one phone call through a public line to a number you know by heart. Who do you call? Have you memorized their number? Do you have a qualified lawyer available to represent you?
These are the questions that four social tech entrepreneurs set out to solve with Good Call, a free 24/7 legal hotline serving New York City’s Bronx borough.
“We heard dozens of stories from people arrested for either really trivial reasons, like hopping a turnstile or forgetting to pay a ticket, or for no reason at all—just for fitting ‘the description,’” explains Gabe Leader-Rose, co-founder and project manager of Good Call. “They all said how hard it was to get in touch with their loved ones or a lawyer who could help. This lack of support and communication often snowballed into much bigger problems.”
Good Call uses Twilio Programmable Voice to give people who have been arrested the legal help they’re entitled to, and prevent some of the undue harm that can come from an arrest.
When access to a phone isn’t enough
When people are arrested, their mobile phones are taken away at the precinct. The only way to reach out for help is by making calls from the precinct’s dial-pad phone using numbers they know by heart. Most people call a parent or spouse, who doesn’t always pick up. Hardly anyone has a lawyer’s number memorized. That means people who have been arrested aren’t able to speak to an attorney until they meet their public defender right before the arraignment hearing.
With little time to make a case for pretrial release, arrestees are often sent to a pretrial detention facility such as New York’s Rikers Island, where the average wait time for trial is 50 days. The consequences can be devastating. Many people lose their jobs or are unable to care for their children while in custody. Some confess to crimes they didn’t commit just to end the process.
The Good Call hotline provides assistance at the critical moment of arrest. People who call the hotline are immediately connected to a free public defender, who explains the process, advises them on their rights, and starts working on their case right away. Attorneys also gain access to Good Call’s emergency contact database, allowing them to contact a client’s loved ones upon their arrest.
Good Call’s founders devised the hotline after months of research into technology challenges faced by low-income New Yorkers. Rather than build a calling system from scratch, they chose to use Twilio Programmable Voice.
“Since around 2014, the name Twilio has been in my ear,” says Eugene Lynch, co-founder and software engineer for the organization. “All my friends and colleagues kept saying if you need to program for anything involving a phone, like voice or SMS, use Twilio. So we did. It’s especially convenient for people who program for the web, like me.”
Gabe says choosing Twilio sped up the development process significantly. “I remember asking Eugene if it would be really, really difficult to build a hotline like this,” he says. “He said, ‘Twilio exists, so no.’”
Designing the right technology
Offering a hotline for free legal assistance isn’t a new idea. What distinguishes Good Call is that it uses Twilio technology to route calls to attorneys with the right expertise, delivering qualified help in the nick of time.
“One of the big challenges technologically and logistically for most legal providers running hotlines is that they have a relatively big staff working on a lot of different things at once” Gabe says. “So when they’re staffing hotlines, they have to make sure to connect arrestees with the right attorney, who speaks the right language, and is in the right location. Automation and tracking make this intake a lot easier.”
Twilio also enables an operator tool that coordinates with Good Call’s database of emergency contacts. Attorneys that need to reach a person’s friends and family can send automatic text messages with the click of a button, knowing that the message will get sent to the right place.
In some cases, an arrestee’s loved ones may not know why the person was arrested, or where he or she is being held. In such cases, those loved ones can call the hotline themselves to initiate the legal process on the arrestee’s behalf.
Support When it Matters Most
As of August 2017, Good Call had connected 315 Bronx residents to free legal help, with an average wait time of less than one minute before connecting to an attorney—essential speed when people in custody have only a few minutes to make a call.
Good Call rolled out the hotline on a limited basis first, making sure the service worked as designed before expanding to the rest of the city and beyond. “In some technology circles, you can build fast and fail,” Gabe explains. “This is not an area where we could afford failure.” Eventually, the founders expect to bring Good Call across the U.S.
Good Call’s success stories are both inspiring and heartbreaking. A 17-year-old was arrested as a suspect in a robbery case and taken to the local precinct. When his mother arrived at the precinct, none of the officers knew about the case or where her son was located. “As a parent, you can imagine how scary it is knowing your child has disappeared into the system, and not knowing what’s going to happen next,” Gabe says.
The arrestee’s mother called the hotline and was connected to a free attorney in less than a minute. The attorney not only found her son, but arrived at the precinct in time to see the police violate protocol by showing him to a witness before putting him in a lineup, an action known to bias the witness’s account. Because the attorney caught the misconduct firsthand, he was able to use it during the son’s defense. The judge subsequently released her son.
“Seeing cases where Good Call has a huge impact on someone’s life continues to drive our work,” Gabe says. “We want to continue providing this support to everyone who needs it, and prevent other folks from ending up in jail for the wrong reasons.” As Good Call expands across its geographic coverage, the hotline is sure to help many more people when that one call is all they have.