Jelani Anglin is ensuring access to legal counsel at time of arrest for all Americans, including the most marginalized, creating a legal system where the right to an attorney exists in practice rather than in theory and, through equitable rights enforcement, combatting mass incarceration.
The New Idea
Jelani Anglin is ensuring that anyone arrested in America, no matter their race or socioeconomic status, receives access to legal counsel. Legal access is part of the country’s most basic agreements with citizens, written as a guarantee in the Sixth Amendment. But far too often, many disenfranchised Americans are left without the ability to fully exercise their Sixth Amendment right due to financial, racial, and systemic barriers. Jelani has designed a robust early legal intervention system so that formal constitutional rights to legal counsel are available, especially for low-income communities of color who have been disproportionately affected by the mass industrial prison complex in America. Jelani Anglin is the Founder and CEO of Good Call, a technology-based, community-oriented solution that is creating an early legal intervention system to shift the balance of power and reduce unnecessary harm that occurs during the arrest process.
Although access to legal counsel is enshrined in the US Constitution, the reality in practice is that millions of people per year – mostly young men of color – are arrested, never charged with a crime, but are nonetheless traumatized by long, complicated arrests, days, or weeks in jail, and are frequently coerced into false statements and confessions or damaging plea deals. This is because our current legal intervention system does not immediately connect lawyers to people following arrest, leaving those who have been arrested to face the critical initial 24-48 hours of arrest and arraignment alone, with consequences that could last a lifetime. In 2017, the Urban Institute found that wrongful convictions in the US range from 2-10%, representing an estimated 40,000-230,000 innocent individuals who are in prison. And the leading contributor to wrongful convictions is police-induced false confessions given under duress.
To change this, Jelani is simultaneously building awareness of this massive gap in access to early legal intervention and addressing this gap by pinpointing the time of arrest as a critical entry point in the criminal justice system where solutions can have an outsized impact. His initial idea is Good Call, an easy to remember 1-800 hotline that anyone can call, day or night, and be connected to a lawyer within 30 seconds. Good Call was designed by those directly and indirectly impacted by the arrest process and has already fielded over 10,000 calls and connections to lawyers. But more importantly: it has fueled a growing movement to address the deep inequities in our criminal justice system, beginning with the experience of arrest itself. As Jelani’s work evolves into advocacy and organizing efforts across the country, Jelani and his team are successfully launching a fight against mass incarceration at its very entry point: the time of arrest.
In 2021, there were over 4.5 million arrests for all offenses in the United States. In New York City alone, there are over 300,000 arrests a year. Most of those arrests are concentrated in low-income communities, with many arrests being for low level misdemeanors. 47,000 of these New York arrests come with a bail bond that is too expensive for individuals or their loved ones to be able to afford. As a result, individuals will sit in jail or pre-trial detention facilities for an average of 50 days, without even having been convicted of a crime.
Whether you are 16 years old or 60, the very experience of getting arrested can have severe consequences, regardless of your actual conviction. Those who are arrested may be confronted with the negative effects that having a criminal record (or even just a mugshot online) has on your rights as an American in this country, whether it be voting, housing equity, or job access. Good Call has countless records of individuals who were arrested due to profiling, predatory policies, and quite frankly—for being a person of color at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
In addition to these legal and civic implications, people who have been arrested can also suffer psychologically as a result of what is often a distressing, traumatic experience. In 2017, researchers at the University of California, Irvine found that 12.2 million individuals faced mental health repercussions due the social stigmas, feelings of powerlessness and alienation, and time-consuming bureaucracy that the arrest process entails.
Currently, public defenders are overworked with extremely high caseloads and are often brought into a client’s case when it’s too late to help in a meaningful way. Although there are almost 10,000 public defense organizations in the US, there is no standard, streamlined solution that allows them to run efficient intakes or get in touch with clients during the arrest process. Through research and experience, Jelani and his team have learned that everyone benefits when lawyers secure clients at the time of arrest, so that they can advise their clients from the very start and have a more in-depth understanding of the case.
Jelani and Good Call are taking what is seen as an outdated, older technology – the hotline – and modernizing it into a crucial tool for early legal defense and representation. Jelani and his team are uniquely positioned as pioneers in the early intervention space, trying to effectively execute the Sixth Amendment in a system that is antiquated, slow, and that perpetuates racial bias, false arrests, and unjust judicial processes. While other organizations are focused on bail or the period of reentry, Good Call is one of the few organizations forwarding innovations to the criminal justice system at the exact moment of arrest.
Currently, the arrest system does not resemble a level playing field, as public defenders are generally not brought on to represent a client until after the booking process, leaving people susceptible to inadequate defense. Jelani and the Good Call team sought to understand how they could create an early intervention that provided legal representation at no cost, at the earliest moment possible, to people who are only afforded one phone call and stripped of their cell phones.
Enter Good Call, a streamlined solution that allows those arrested to have free, quick access to public defense, at any time of day. When a person or their loved one is arrested, they can call the hotline number (1-833-3-GOODCALL) to access free legal support and representation. On average, Good Call can connect callers to a lawyer within 31 seconds. At that time, the lawyer will guide an individual through what to expect and can provide counsel and recommendations on how to handle the case. In addition, the Good Call team also leverages the hotline to call people’s loved ones so that family members, friends, and other loved ones can be part of the broader support and accountability systems that guide an individual through the arrest experience. In doing so, Jelani has managed to boil down a multi-step process that is often inaccessible and complex, into a single solution that grants loved ones and defenders the ability to be notified much earlier on in the arrest process, leaving the door open for more positive outcomes. To date, Good Call has received over 11,000 calls in New York City alone and reports a caller satisfaction rate of over 90%. The organization currently employs four attorneys, with additional volunteer attorneys helping to monitor cases.
Good Call was created on the principles of democratic, co-design processes. Jelani and his team first started to approach the issue of unjust arrests by talking to New Yorkers who were directly impacted by the arrest system in New York, whether as a person who was arrested, a loved one of someone facing an arrest, or as an attorney tasked with representing a client. These collective insights helped Jelani and his team to understand that there was a fundamental mistrust between the community and public defenders, due to experiences like defenders encouraging individuals who were arrested to plead guilty. These learnings allowed Good Call to unlock their framework of early legal intervention that is currently helping to rebuild trust between communities and public defenders.
Good Call’s iterative, side-by-side process continues, as Jelani has sustained close community ties, leaning on residents across all five NYC boroughs for ideas, resources, and suggestions on how to improve Good Call’s technologies, while also giving them space to share the most effective ways to get Good Call into the community. Through their Internship and Fellowship programs -- created in partnership with local alternatives to incarceration programs -- Good Call has become a worksite with tangible projects and learning opportunities for interns who have been personally affected by the criminal justice system. The alumni network is growing every year, with over 30 members continuing their involvement with Good Call, whether via canvassing, sharing early legal intervention information with communities, or helping the team think through broader narrative change campaigns. Other examples include Good Call’s Directory, a database where people can save emergency contacts in case of arrest (which now has over 4,000 accounts) or their merchandise line featuring the 1-800 number, which has turned everyday clothing items like t-shirts or printed socks into another lever for quick, captivating resource awareness. The wider community has also been essential in helping Jelani think through Good Call’s next steps beyond the hotline.
Through years of community organizing work, Jelani has learned about the power of organizing and coalition building for change. Good Call’s Organizing and Advocacy Team develop models to ensure that lawmakers understand the broken parts of a legal system that needs desperate remedying at the policy level. The team has been able to develop partnerships with organizations like Gideon’s Promise, The National Law, and other existing networks. In collaboration with community-based organizers, the Good Call team is developing regional networks of attorneys that can both provide and advocate for early legal intervention support at a local level. The goal is for each Good Call city to have access to technological innovations that support early legal intervention frameworks, as well as Good Call’s organizing models and advocacy efforts. Both of these essential services are provided by the NYC-based back office, so that new cities can focus on local partnerships with legal defense organizations and generating awareness in the community. In this way, the plug-and-play, tried-and-true hotline and dispatch technology and organizing models allow new groups to quickly stand up this critical solution while helping (and not distracting from) their local work of building the on-the-ground support for broader structural and legislative change.
Jelani and his team have been expanding across New York state and are in conversation with political stakeholders about expansion into other cities, such as Chicago, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. Good Call is funded by key partners such as the Rodenberry Foundation, Google.org, FastForward, Echoing Green, the JM Kaplan Fund, and more. The organization’s budget has nearly doubled in recent years, from $750,000 in 2020 to $1.2 million today. While waves of pandemic era support have ebbed and the once increasing calls for funding Black-led organizations have mostly receded, Jelani has been able to maintain momentum and leadership by consistently showing that his practical and systems-changing approach is working. He’s also building his base of support among policymakers, in order to expand the hotline technology into different states, which he hopes to do in the next 2-3 years.
Since Jelani was first elected as a Virtual Special Relationship in 2021, Good Call has grown their community engagement efforts and extended outreach to support LGBTQIA+ groups, who face unique challenges related to over-policing. In addition, the Good Call team has implemented proactive measures, such as “Know your rights” workshops and legal clinics, empowering individuals to protect themselves. They have also launched information dissemination hubs throughout New York City to increase awareness and hotline access. In the future, Good Call’s envisions their technology serving as the backbone for public defense hotlines nationwide, empowering individuals to access legal support when they need it most.
As a child, Jelani quickly noticed an affinity for entrepreneurship and started his first online business in high school. He went on to receive the New York State FBLA Business Plan of the Year Award. Growing up in Far Rockaway, New York, Jelani was raised by a father who inspired his business acumen and a mother who instilled a drive and focus that would inspire his entrepreneurship ventures. This upbringing also encouraged Jelani to work in various organizing and advocacy spaces in Washington D.C. and New York City, where he held roles at the ALF-CIO, Airbnb, and Success Academy Charter Schools.
In 2008, Jelani was arrested and came face to face with a broken criminal legal system that left him incarcerated for not carrying his ID while being loud on the train with his friends, which the arresting officer considered “unruly behavior”. Jelani refers to this as the moment he became a part of the system. This experience motivated him to leverage his experience to stop that from happening to other young Black men in NYC, and later contributed to the founding of Good Call.
Jelani has been consistently praised for his role as a proximate leader in this space that is often occupied by leaders who do not have direct experience or ties to the arrest system. Described as an anomaly, colleagues have expressed admiration for the ways that Jelani pays such close attention and care to all areas of the organization’s development, as well as for the community that inspired the work. In the words of one colleague, “the organization could have expanded a lot faster, bigger, and sooner. But Jelani wanted to be purposeful and think about everything holistically, whether it was hiring people of color to have true representation or ensuring that we partner with people who are actually working for our communities.”
Since starting Good Call NYC in 2016, Jelani has been recognized as an Echoing Green Fellow and a Roddenberry Fellow, as well as a Forbes’ 30 Under 30 recipient.