Imagine being accused of a crime that could land you in jail.
You have just minutes to consult with a lawyer before standing before a judge.
This is the scenario many U.S. public defenders and their clients find themselves in daily.
In fact, 80% of Americans facing criminal charges use a public defender.
At the same time, 80% of these defenders report that they don’t have enough time to prepare for cases.
This creates a skewed justice system in the U.S.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 76% of defendants with a private attorney were convicted. That’s compared to 88% with a public attorney.
Private attorneys have staff and can leave no stone unturned. They can sift through stacks of paperwork to find ways to dismiss a case based on lack of evidence or technicalities.
They file motions to postpone proceedings, minimizing the time clients spend in jail awaiting trial.
Public defenders, however, are more likely to recommend plea deals due to a lack of time and resources, regardless of if this is the best option for the defendant.
A classic case of the haves and have-nots.
But there’s new evidence to believe that all of this could soon change with the adoption of artificial intelligence…
Out of Time
For years, studies have shown public defenders are overworked, compromising the quality of representation for those who depend on them.
Several states have tried to lessen the burden on public defenders.
One strategy has been the decriminalization of specific offenses, aiming to lower the number of arrests.
The state of California passed Proposition 47 in 2014. It recategorized some nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors.
The objective was clear: Reduce the load on the state’s packed prison system.
However, a ripple effect emerged. The legislation eased punishments for crimes, including shoplifting. This led to a surge in theft cases, which caused many retailers to shut down stores, costing the state jobs and creating ghost towns in areas where crime surged.
Worse yet, the workload on many California public defenders hasn’t gotten better.
In 2022, over 300 public defenders from Los Angeles signed a petition detailing alarming concerns:
50% said they’ve thought about quitting due to the excessive workload.
70% asserted that the volume of cases handed to them was too much.
80% felt they weren’t given enough prep time for cases.
A common thread frustrating public defenders is lack of time.
This is where the advancements of AI have me the most excited.
AI Takes on Bureaucracy
New tools are being created to give public defenders more time to focus on the clients that rely on them. All because of advancements in AI.
One issue facing the Los Angeles public defender’s office was a dated computer system.
The office relied on a patchwork system dating back to the 1960s.
The day would often start with thousands of paper documents pouring into the office. A public defender would have a short period to review the details before more would inevitably stack up.
High-priced attorneys can pay paralegals to sort through each document. Public defenders often work alone.
This is when an unlikely hero emerged.
While Amazon is best known for delivering packages, the company is providing a new way to manage the overwhelming paperwork a public defender has to deal with.
Working closely with Los Angeles attorneys, Amazon created AI software that can scan incoming documents into a new computer system. The software automatically creates a summary sheet with relevant charges and maximum sentences. It can even find witness information and create witness records.
The new system is already paying off.
Data shows the system reduced the manual entry of data by 85%.
It’s also showing life-changing results. A defendant avoided being arrested because the automated system alerted the public defender of a way to keep them out of jail.
AI is giving public defenders exactly what they need. Something new laws and an increased budget can’t provide… More time.
This speaks to a broader trend I see forming around AI – the ability to make people’s lives even better.
AI will democratize access to knowledge in ways we’ve never seen before. As computers can perform the tasks of lawyers, teachers, and doctors, they will bring access to knowledge people have never experienced before.
Making the judicial system a bit fairer for those that lack the resources for a private attorney is just one example.
And the reality is that these generative AIs are as smart – or smarter – than most human attorneys. In mid-March, ChatGPT – the generative AI from OpenAI – passed the bar exam while scoring in the top 10%.
I’d love to hear one area where you think AI could improve people’s lives. Write to me at [email protected]. I’ll share your letters and respond in Friday’s mailbag edition of The Bleeding Edge.
Editor, The Bleeding Edge