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JTDL+: The $1B Justice Technology Impact Fund
As I mentioned a few weeks back, I’m expanding the JTDL offerings to include original writing. I welcome your feedback over email or on Twitter. This change will not impact the Monday newsletter.
Looking back at the Justice Technology Impact Fund
Balancing many crises was required of President Biden when he took office. The raging pandemic, tattered economy, and deteriorated trust in government were each individually big enough to consume any administration. However, “build back better” meant no aspect of American society was to be overlooked, including the justice system.
Even before the pandemic, the civil justice system excluded average Americans and the criminal system groaned under the weight of mass incarceration. Seeing the desperate need in these systems across the country, the administration revived the Department of Justice's Office of Access to Justice (“OAJ”) and worked with Congress to create the $1 billion Justice Technology Impact Fund (“JTIF”). By doing so, the Biden-Harris administration seeded a revolution in digital justice infrastructure.
Four years later, the JTIF is proving itself as an integral, non-partisan tool for rebuilding and rethinking our justice systems. While the access-to-justice gap still persists today in 2025, states that modernized their justice systems through the JTIF saw an increased rate of representation and improved outcomes for the self-represented in civil cases. Adding to this success, rates of incarceration—already decreasing nationally since 2008—have fallen even faster across participating fund communities.
Now, at the end of President Biden’s first term, it’s worth looking back at the creation of the fund, its successes, and its early lessons.
At the beginning of the decade, the staggering failures of our civil justice system were on full display. Back then, at least one side in 76 percent of civil cases—such as divorce, eviction, and employment disputes—had no attorney. Given the high cost of lawyers, chronic underfunding of legal aid services, and antiquated legal processes, the US ranked 36th globally on access to civil justice—behind Poland and Rwanda and on par with Kazakhstan.
It was also a time of great civil unrest over systemic racism in the criminal justice system. Before the Biden administration took office, more than 10 million Americans a year were arrested. This population was disproportionately Black, Brown, and poor. Overworked and underfunded, local public defenders were unable to do their jobs and were often lawyers in name only. Without zealous legal representation, by 2019 the majority of people in US jails were awaiting trial and had not been convicted of the crime that led to their detention. At the same time, public trust in the courts had fallen by double digits.
It seemed that the justice system in the world’s oldest democracy was altogether crumbling.
Creating the Justice Technology Impact Fund
Asserting that “there is nothing more American than equal access to justice,” President Biden announced the creation of the $1 billion JTIF on the 58th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the US Supreme Court case that guaranteed a right to legal counsel in criminal cases. In that speech, the president made clear that the justice system was broken and we needed a “moonshot” to re-imagine justice as a service while improving access and transparency online and in-person. Continuing with the status quo, he said, would do nothing less than “jeopardize the American experiment.”
While the task was gargantuan, the mission of the fund was simple: improve access-to-justice and drive down incarceration. The fund would achieve this mission by supporting justice institutions—such as courts, legal aid offices, prosecutors, and public defenders—in the adoption of modern technologies and best practices. To jump start this undertaking, the reconstituted Office of Access to Justice plucked leaders from 18F, the Legal Services Corporation, the U.S. Digital Service, industry, and academia.
Under diverse leadership, the JTIF took creative approaches as a federal grant maker. For instance, instead of working with a specific agency on a one-off project, the fund prioritized working with jurisdictions where justice agencies applied as a cohort. By working with a coalition of justice agencies in a county or state, the fund was able to scale its impact faster and with a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.
Each grantee came to the table with different issues and challenges. However, every cohort started at the same place: adopting open data standards created by the National Center for State Courts and the Bureau of Justice Assistance and creating a public API to share the collected data. This was a radical sea change. Just a few years into the creation of this digital infrastructure, justice systems around the country are more transparent and accessible—breathing new life into what’s possible.
Adopting and implementing open standards and collecting data created numerous benefits. First, it allowed communities to understand, manage, and clear the unprecedented backlog of cases that had amassed during the pandemic. Second, standardizing data fields helped states create uniform and simplified court forms. This made it easier for self-represented litigants to manage their own legal issues and for technologists to scale their products. Third, collecting and analyzing the data also led to a deeper level of introspection from local leaders that created a wave of reforms meant to increase racial and ethnic equity and access. As one state chief justice put it, "We’ve always worked toward a more equal justice system, but it wasn't until we had the data that we knew what needed to be done."
With reliable data, the DOJ, local agencies, and private industry have been experimenting with new ways to access the justice system. Michigan, for example, has been able to double down on its early investment in online dispute resolution software. Now, more self-represented litigants can resolve low-stakes, high volume legal issues such as traffic tickets, criminal record expungements, and warrant forgiveness without ever stepping foot in a courthouse. This program has dramatically decreased the time it takes to resolve an issue, and made it easier for local legal aid lawyers to help more people. Further, the number of bench warrants issued for failing to appear at a hearing has dropped, because defendants no longer run the risk of missing a court date. Creating a flywheel effect, this effort shrunk the detention rate, saving the state money while avoiding hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and fines primarily burdening poor residents of the Wolverine State.
In another instance, Kentucky’s statewide public defender service built on top of their new data infrastructure by upgrading their case management systems and adopting novel technology, including software that transcribes audio evidence caught on body- and dashcam video. This freed up hundreds of hours in offices across the state. With that extra time, defenders are better prepared and taking fewer plea deals—reversing a decades’ long trend. This has forced prosecutors into court, where defendants are provided more rights and have a greater chance to defend themselves and their freedom.
False Starts & Mistakes
While the JTIF has attributed to significant advancements in American justice, it hasn't been without false starts and mistakes. Early on, grant funding was given to local agencies without a sense of what procurement rules should look like. Without clear direction, grantees accepted bids from software companies under the same rules they used to buy chairs and desks. With no way to adeptly assess software vendors, incomplete projects and overrun budgets were all too common. Recognizing this glaring error, the OAJ helped develop software procurement best practices and boilerplate language to manage smarter contracting and vendor vetting.
Another significant early-stage lesson was the need to pair technology creation and adoption with training of local justice agency staff. In some jurisdictions, technology adoption happened so rapidly that staff were left in the dark about how to operate the new systems. This led to low morale and a spotty adoption of the technology. In at least one instance, confusion among local staff created a security lapse that led to the publication of private information. Luckily, the office had only digitized six months of records at that time, leaving the exposed pool of data relatively small. Acknowledging that the issue could jeopardize the JTIF’s credibility, the DOJ developed clear standards and curriculum on cybersecurity, which are now a part of a larger set of resources to help justice agencies handle change management and technology adoption.
The last four years have been a dream for justice reformers, but there is still plenty to do. To date, only agencies in 20 states have accepted money from the fund. More outreach is needed to bring reticent justice partners into the fold. However, the progress in those 20 states is its own advertisement for the JTIF. Indeed, as more states update their justice systems, successes will be replicated and best practices refined.
To build on these early accomplishments, the fund will soon need to be replenished. With such clear benefit, Congress cannot let funding lapse. Continued support of the fund is an endorsement that the United States can still build a more perfect union—one that guarantees equal access to justice for all.