An early-morning knock brought Josephine to the door of her home in the Bronx. It was the NYPD. They had come to arrest her 17-year-old son, Armand.*

Josephine was frantic and confused — there was no way Armand could have done anything wrong. The police took him away, telling Josephine only that she could find him at the precinct. She followed as quickly as she could, but when she arrived no one knew where her son was. Armand was alone and lost in the system.

Josephine had no idea what to do until she remembered Good Call, a free legal services hotline that helps New Yorkers who have been arrested. Good Call — which has been featured in The New York Times — quickly connects callers with lawyers from the Bronx Defenders and Legal Aid Society, with an average wait time of just 42 seconds. In addition, the service automatically alerts a caller’s loved ones using information callers have stored ahead of time. This is crucial, because in today’s smartphone era few peoplehave telephone numbers memorized, which can make reaching a friend or family member very difficult for someone whose phone has been confiscated.

After Josephine called Good Call’s easy-to-remember number (1-833-3-GOODCALL), a lawyer from the Bronx Defenders was immediately dispatched to the precinct where Armand was being held.

In most cases, public defenders meet their clients for the first time just moments before they appear in front of a judge, making it difficult to mount a successful defense. But in Armand’s case, the lawyer was able to arrive in time to put together a strong case. This made it possible for Armand to avoid jail, go home, and stay in school — which is exactly the sort of outcome Good Call was founded to achieve.

“Without support to get out of the process early, a person in need of legal help can face jail time that creates a whole slew of problems — such as the loss of housing, employment, or the custody of children, or expulsion from school — that are totally unacceptable for someone who was arrested for a minor offense, or for no reason at all,” said Good Call co-founder Gabriel Leader-Rose.

Good Call was incubated at Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood, an arm of Robin Hood that develops tech-based solutions to poverty. The four founders of Good Call met as members of the Blue Ridge Labs Fellowship, an intensive summer program that provides aspiring social entrepreneurs with everything they might need to get started, including an amazing group of peers and access to a pool of community collaborators for research and testing.

After getting Good Call off the ground, the founders were accepted into Catalyst, a Blue Ridge Labs program for early-stage ventures with the potential to fight poverty at scale. Through Catalyst, the team received financial support and mentorship from across the Robin Hood network to help them launch their pilot, secure critical talent, and make crucial decisions about their operating and funding model.

Good Call is being piloted in the Bronx and plans to expand the service to all five boroughs. So far, Good Call has successfully connected over 300 New Yorkers to lawyers, which is a great start — but there is far more work to be done.

Each year, nearly 50,000 New Yorkers — predominantly black and Hispanic men — must spend an average of 50 days on Rikers Island even though they have never been charged with a crime. All told, 72 percent of Rikers inmates are there because they could not make bail and are awaiting trial, often for minor offenses like jumping a turnstile or forgetting to pay a ticket.

This isn’t just bad for those inmates — it’s bad for their families, their neighborhoods, and the city as a whole. Rikers, which has a daily population of almost 10,000 inmates, was recently described by an independent commission as a “19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.” The nation’s second-largest jail is physically isolated from the rest of the city, beset by violence, and largely unable to meet the various needs of its population, including mental illness.

Robin Hood has long recognized the urgency of helping New Yorkers stay on track and out of Rikers. So much of the organization’s work — including education, job training, and support for alternatives to incarceration — can be considered part of the solution to criminal justice issues. Specifically, Robin Hood community partners are currently providing 1,000 court-involved youth with mental health services, drug treatment, counseling, and connections to jobs and school.

Robin Hood is also committed to playing a meaningful and productive role in the growing movement to fix our broken criminal justice system. As Wes Moore often says, philanthropy alone cannot solve a problem created by policy. In April, New York finally raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18, leaving North Carolina as the only state that tries 16-year-olds as adults, and efforts are underway to reform the bail system and develop community-based alternatives to Rikers Island. When such efforts align with our goals, Robin Hood will work closely with trusted partners to help create a criminal justice system that is truly just.

*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

 

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