Roc Nation Invests in Company’s ‘Promise’ to Reform Criminal Justice System

By Sameer Rao Mar 20, 2018

Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, who has promoted criminal justice reform in prose and on screen, is putting his financial weight behind a start-up company that aims to use technology to reform bail and sentencing practices. 

TechCrunch reported yesterday (March 19) that Roc Nation, the MC’s management company, invested in a first round of fundraising for Promise. The company joined venture capital groups like Kapor Capital, 8VC and First Round Capital to raise a total of $3 million for the new company. An emailed statement today (March 20) announced the official launch of the software at the Y Combinator Demo Day, a showcase for new start-ups in Silicon Valley.

Promise offers an alternative to traditional models that incarcerate people for unpaid bail. The program works with people charged with crimes, offering an alternative to pre-trial incarceration.

It follows three stages: intake, support and supervision. Promise approaches the first of these stages by conducting a needs assessment, which informs an individualized care plan that the participant can use to evaluate their progress. For the second stage, Promise matches participants with "care coordinators" who offer emotional and organizational support, connect participants with support services and remind them of court-mandated appointments. The third stage offers local governments a specialized analytics platform to monitor and assess participants’ progress. Most communication occurs via a dedicated mobile app. 

Company officials say this model can reduce the number of people incacerated for bail or supervision violations and the amount of taxpayer money spent incarcerating them. The Vera Institute for Justice reports that nearly 62 percent of people in jail have yet to be convicted of any crime, while the country spends $22.2 billion per year to incarcerate people. Bail practices disproportionately hurt Black and Latinx communities that are already impacted by poverty and racist policing.

"People are going to jail because they look at a piece of paper and misread it, or are going to jail because they can’t afford a class because they’re instead paying child support,” founder and activist Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins told TechCrunch. “If we’re putting people in jail because they’re poor, Brown or Black, we’re spending money the wrong way."

“We are increasingly alarmed by the injustice in our criminal justice system,” Jay-Z said in the statement. “Money, time and lives are wasted with the current policies. It’s time for an innovative and progressive technology that offers sustainable solutions to tough problems. Promise’s team, led by Phaedra, is building an app that can help provide ‘liberty and justice for all’ to millions.”

Ellis-Lamkins told TechCrunch that the company will pilot its model with one unnamed county before implementing it in several others around the country.

But not everybody sees the promise in Promise. The Massachusetts Bail Fund, which subsidizes bail for people with low incomes, critiqued the program for as prioritizing local governments’ surveillance goals over the communities most impacted by mass incarceration: