Tahanie Aboushi, Eliza Orlins and Dan Quart are running behind a broad rethinking of how the criminal justice system should work.
Lucy Lang has spent most of her career as a criminal-justice reformer. But is she too close to the system to bring about real change?
A bill that passed the General Assembly with bipartisan support on Sunday would make Illinois the first state to prohibit officers from lying when interrogating those under 18.
America’s top cop on better policing, race relations, Chauvin, Biden, Rudy and Andrew.
Grand jury minutes in the investigation into Daniel Prude’s death reveal the many ways the criminal justice system struggles when prosecuting the police.
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
This week was good fun not only because we had the whole team together to record, but also because we are still basking in the endless glory of our winning a Webby earlier this week. Frankly we are still shocked. But happy-shocked, like when you get a new toy and it is covered in static electricity.
Anyhoo, we had a packed show with much, much left on the floor as we tried to shoehorn the week into our time slot. Here’s what we got into:
- The world of connections: Fave raised $2.2 million to connect fandoms, Somewhere Good raised $3.75 million to build feedless micro-communities, and both Spokn ($4 million) and Spot ($5 million) are hoping to use the spoken word to connect companies and their staffs. Honestly we think that the overall connection-community world is super exciting.
- Piano, one of those startups we actually have the luck of using, raised $88 million for analytics, subscription, and personalization tools. We get into why the round makes sense, and why one investor stood out more than the others.
- Corporate media: Coinbase is building out a media-ish org (Alex wrote about it here on his personal blog; Scrawler.co has more on the matter), and with TheSkimm hoping to find a corporate home and The Hustle doing the same, we had to dig into the matter. Our take is that content marketing is a response to expensive social advertising. And that it’s fine. And that it is not news.
- Shoutout Forbes and its new union effort. Well done.
- Uptrust raised $2M, which let us talk about the venture-sized opportunity in fighting the billions of dollars wasted on useless mass incarceration.
- And then we chatted about the public markets. Monday.com’s IPO is filed, Marqeta’s IPO is filed, Squarespace’s direct listing is done, and more. It’s hectic out there for late-stage startups.
The show flew by, much like our days recently, simply because it was so fun and jam-packed with news. And we got to make jokes about our listeners and Monday.com PR timing, so what else could we ask for? Talk soon!
A technical violation is one of those Orwellian terms used by the U.S. government to occlude the absurd morass of process and procedure that is the modern criminal justice system in this country. After an offender has served their sentence, they are often placed under probation, which is accompanied by scores of rules on everything from where the person can go to who they can see. If a person commits a technical violation, they often are sent back to prison — perhaps months or years for an action as simple as being minutes late to a parole hearing.
Technical violations are expensive for all of us. Earlier this year, New York’s capital newspaper the Times Union reported that “New York imprisons more people for technical parole violations than any other state, and at a rate almost three times higher than the national average” and “The re-incarceration of those individuals cost taxpayers at least $683 million…” based on a report by Columbia University and The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.
It’s Orwellian, and also Kafkaesque. And it’s a disastrous waste of public resources. Yet, it’s also a problem that lends itself to potential solutions, and that’s where Uptrust wants to make a difference.
Uptrust is a service that connects people returning to society with their public defenders and court records, ensuring that they have the calendars, appointments, rules, and procedures they need to avoid technical violations — improving their re-entry into normal life while saving significant expenses for taxpayers.
The company announced today that it has raised $2 million in seed funding from a trio of lead investors: the Decarceration Fund, Luminate, and Stand Together Ventures Lab. That’s on top of a $1.3 million round we reported on last year.
The company, which came together in 2015 and launched its first product in 2016, was co-founded by Jacob Sills and Elijah Gwynn as they explored how to improve the criminal justice system. They looked at areas like bail bonds, but kept coming back to a fundamental issue: many people were stuck in the system because of missed appointments or other technical violations. “There are way too many people not exiting the system … and they are circling back through,” Sills said.
Uptrust works through text messaging or its own app. Often, it’s linked with a public defender, since a defense attorney is more likely to get through to their clients than other members of the criminal justice system.
The company has been on a growth spree after years of trialing various iterations of its product, and it’s now located in 150 sites in 28 states, up from 30 sites just 18 months ago according to Sills. The state of Virginia, which currently uses the service in two sites, will expand it statewide by the end of this year or early next year.
Currently, the company charges a fee to governments to use the service, with the goal of limiting any financial costs to its end users who often lack the funds to pay. Longer term, however, the company sees a large opportunity in connecting its growing population of users to new services as they re-enter society. “More than half of them have challenges accessing health care,” Sills said, and he sees opportunities in areas as diverse as health care, finance and banking, and housing where the app could play a role in the future.
Yet, he acknowledged that this is still a “new market” that isn’t attractive to many traditional venture capital firms. So with this fundraise, Sills and his team decided to target funds that were deeply steeped in criminal justice issues who would understand both the problem being solved and how Uptrust could both succeed in its mission and also succeed as a business.
They also wanted what Sills described as “good diversity of thought.” Decarceration Fund invests in precisely what it says it does, and Luminate, which is part of the progressive-leaning Omidyar Network, is a philanthropy focused on civic engagement. Meanwhile, Stand Together Ventures Lab is funded by Stand Together which was founded by Charles Koch, who in addition to widely funding Republican and conservative causes, has in recent years also increasingly pursued criminal justice reform to minimize the government’s power over private citizens.
Chris Bentley, managing principal at Decarceration Fund, picked Uptrust as the firm’s first investment because he believed that the company understood precisely what this unique population needed. There’s a “very significant history of well-intended companies in this space causing unintended consequences,” he said. The fund is focused on investing in companies with clear guardrails and business models that are aligned with positive outcomes. “Half of our investment committee are founders themselves but are also returning citizens with real, lived experience with the system,” he said.
Uptrust has now grown to 15 people, centered in San Francisco and also scattered up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The “track record of for-profit companies is pretty bad, since most of them just build what the criminal legal system wants,” Sills said. “We are trying to prove that you can make money and do good and have real impact.”
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Alvin Bragg has had encounters with the police both in the streets and in the courts. He wants to change the system from within.
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Building and growing a startup is hard, but pivoting said startup into something new and then achieving that same growth is even harder. But it’s not impossible.
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, founder and CEO of PromisePay, and Jessica Matthews, founder and CEO of Uncharted Power, both have experiences doing this. At TechCrunch Disrupt, they shed some light on their respective, yet somewhat similar, paths.
PromisePay, formerly known as Promise, got its start as a bail reform startup that aimed to reduce the number of people held behind bars simply because they can’t pay bail. Now, it’s focused on helping people make payments for parking and traffic tickets, court fees and child support.
“We actually had this huge existential crisis,” Ellis-Lamkins said. “We at Promise are focused on ending mass incarceration and on decreasing the number of people in jails. So we started to be very successful and we sold very well. And what we realized fundamentally is when we created efficiency, it made the systems more efficient at incarcerating people. It didn’t make them more efficient at what our wrong assumption had been, which is if the system is more efficient, it would decrease the number of people in the system. And so we made a decision that growth was not consistent with who we were as a company. So I went back to our investors, which is hard when you’re making money and said, this is not the path because I don’t think this is a long-term path.”
She told investors there are already people who sell their tech to law enforcement, but what Promise wants to do is liberate people. It became clear to her that she was selling to the wrong people when she was talking to a client who said the difference between them and her was that she cares about people in the criminal justice system and they don’t. Ellis-Lamkins told investors she was going to stop selling to prisons and jails, and offered to give investors their money back.
Instead, she started looking at why people are ending up incarcerated.
“And luckily, that spurred growth, but I’m just not going to be a company that grows on the backs of poor people and Black and brown people, because there is a better way,” she said. “But it was frightening in the moment to abandon a market in which we’re making money.”
Thankfully, she said, not one of her investors had a problem with her decision.
Matthews said she had a relatively similar experience with her company, Uncharted Power, which got its start as Uncharted Play. Her company’s first product was an energy-harnessing soccer ball that could power a lamp after just a few hours of playing with it. She later integrated that tech intro strollers to power cell phones.
But after raising her Series A round for Uncharted Play, Matthews realized that her company needed to go all-in on infrastructure. She thought about the ultimate goal of her company, which is to get people the infrastructure they need in their lives. She just didn’t see a way of doing that with soccer balls.
“So we got good at making these things and pushing them and scaling them out, but when you have this balance of not just profit and impact but impact because you know that you’re a member of the group you’re trying to serve. For me, it was sitting down and saying is this actually solving the problem even if it’s successful.”
Matthews said she realized it wasn’t. So that meant walking away from the products that were bringing in millions and had 64% gross profit margins, Matthews said.
But it all paid off. Last year, Uncharted Power raised additional funding from an investor that validated her thesis for the future of power infrastructure.
“That moment was huge for us,” she said.
Matthews and Ellis-Lamkins also had some other gems worth sharing about imposter syndrome and measuring success. Here are some more highlights from the conversation.
On imposter syndrome and representation
It feels like tech has failed so significantly in investing in people they don’t know and missed out in growing companies because of that. So I think our obligation is to help make sure that we are not the only ones.
It’s not imposter syndrome, it’s representation syndrome because I feel the exact same way. When we raised our Series A, the immediate thing I thought was, ‘Oh, man. I can not lose these people’s money.’ This is huge and if we don’t work, it’s not even about us, it’s about every other person who looks like me.
On measuring success
I think part of what we should measure is how does technology improve our society in general, a measurement of success. I do think that if we measure success, it should not just be, I could make a billion dollars or have a company that valued at a billion dollars if the consequences are greater than the actual benefit and so I think that’s really important.
Let’s get rid of the term “social enterprise.” It’s bullshit. Enterprise is an enterprise. A problem’s a problem. Let’s create a value system based on the problems. There are some problems that are more important than others. And knowing that means we need to back and support the founders who get that more than others, and then beyond that.
Wrongly convicted Black defendants were slightly more likely than whites to be victims of misconduct, especially in drug and murder investigations.
The move, which the officer in Rochester, N.Y., called “segmenting,” is normally used to subdue a person, but Mr. Prude was already shackled.