How the nation’s biggest public defender’s office underwent a massive digital transformation

The Los Angeles County agency is using data tools to keep vulnerable people out of jail.
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Screenshot via Publicis Sapient and Breakwater Studios

· 5 min read

One day last year, Hooman Kazemi, a deputy public defender for Los Angeles County, received a digital alert about a client who had been suffering from mental health issues.

The agency’s software revealed that the client’s case had come up for a possible probation violation after a missed appointment. As a result of the alert, Kazemi called the client the same day, and ultimately appeared in court alongside him to avoid a warrant being issued for his client’s arrest.

Before the office put its new software system in place, these kinds of incidents tended to result in a bench warrant and subsequent arrest, according to Mohammed Al Rawi, chief information officer at the LA County Public Defender’s Office.

“The judge was surprised to see them both standing there, because that’s not the norm,” Al Rawi said.

“Before the [software], 99% of the time, the attorney will not happen to be in the courtroom to know about this. A bench warrant will be issued, the client will be arrested, they’ll lose their job, they’ll lose their home, they’ll lose their car—because they’ll have to wait for two weeks until they are released from county jail.”

“Burying the ark”

Al Rawi highlighted the story as an example of something that might seem like a routine matter of office paperwork that can have outsized stakes for the vulnerable people the agency serves.

The outcome was made possible by a mass digitization effort undertaken over the past several years by the LA County Public Defender’s Office, the largest and oldest such agency in the country. Officials there hope it will serve as a blueprint for other overburdened public defender’s offices.

The project has so far moved 160 million court case records onto a client case management system (CCMS) in partnership with digital consulting firm Publicis Sapient. The platform is integrated with various court systems and provides data analytics to guide decisions.

That’s a far cry from the level of technology that the office had when Publicis first began the five-year undertaking in 2018, which was lagging even by the standards of government agencies, according to Publicis Sapient SVP James Kessler, who leads the firm’s state and local business unit.

“Here’s a visual for you: You know the ending scene of the original Raiders of the Lost Ark movie when they’re burying the ark in a massive government warehouse so that it’s never found again? Well, those massive government warehouses actually exist in Los Angeles. And that’s where the paper-based records were stored,” Kessler said. “So for a public defender to actually do their job effectively, they would have to search for information in giant government warehouses.”

A warehouse of documents

Screenshot via Publicis Sapient and Breakwater Studios

It didn’t help that the tech that prosecutors in the district attorney’s office had at their disposal far outmatched that of the public defenders, thanks to an uneven allotment of government resources for digital transformation, according to Kessler.

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“Generally, governments invest more in the prosecution side of the aisle than the defense side of the aisle with ‘be tough on crime’ and things like that,” Kessler said, “And so the DA’s office has access to a lot of information, but the public defenders did not.”

“Every witchcraft that exists”

One of the early obstacles in the digitization process was rigging a Salesforce platform and other enterprise software for the unique purposes of providing legal representation to society’s poorest people, Al Rawi said. Another challenge was the number of different courts housing essential data, he added.

“The first hurdle was two years of reverse-engineering data entry from case-centric to people-centric,” Al Rawi said. “And we have used every tool—every witchcraft that exists in the market. But with that level of complexity, and different styles and data entry across 50-plus courtrooms and dozens of data entry staff in each courtroom, it made it extremely complicated. But we did it, and that was the biggest lift.”

Kessler said there have been two transformative changes in the 25-plus years that Publicis Sapient has been working with state and local governments on digitization. One was the advent of cloud storage, and the other was configurable platforms, which he analogizes to Lego blocks for building systems around processes like case file organization.

“In this case, it’s like Salesforce provides the Lego blocks, and they provide an image of, like, ‘Hey, you could build a courthouse or this or that.’ And our job is to actually assemble the Legos into the resulting solution. So, with a configurable platform, you sort of start 50% of the way there, and our job is to do the other 50% and actually configure it precisely to what that department, the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office, needs,” he said.

But the configuration of those Legos is meaningful to public defenders and their clients alike. The tools are on display in a new documentary short from filmmaker Ben Proudfoot, Forgiving Johnny, which follows an attorney at the office, Noah Cox, as he uses a new California law and digital tools to help divert a developmentally disabled man facing prison time into a treatment program.

Al Rawi said the next steps in the transformation process will center on how to use generative AI to do things like summarize records and produce documents, in addition to machine learning-driven programs for transcription and video identification that the office already uses.

“The sky’s the limit, as you have everyone trusting a system, going home with a very thin laptop, as opposed to dragging a huge box of paper every day with them either to the courtroom or to their homes,” Al Rawi said. “The more automation we can bring, the more strategic tools we can give the lawyers, the better positioned they are with the massive disadvantage they’re in in terms of resources.”

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Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.