Cait Kennedy almost missed her opportunity.On a dreary fall Friday two years ago, she was on the fence about attending Hack Cleveland’s #Fix216 Scope-a-thon, which focused on finding tech-based solutions for criminal justice reform. The Cleveland native was busy and run down.
“I thought, Man, I’m so tired, I’d really just like to take a nap,” says the full-time urban studies doctoral student and teaching assistant at Cleveland State University’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs.
“But something was telling me: Show up. This is something you care about. I’m glad I went with the latter.”
The latter, it turns out, could make a big impact for Clevelanders who have been charged with crimes. At that two-day event, Kennedy and the team members she was paired with took home the top prize for their idea: an app that would serve as a community bail fund. That idea led to the formation of unBail, a nonprofit where Kennedy now serves as executive director.
It’s no surprise, considering she’s been involved in progressive politics since the Howard Dean campaign captivated her at age 13. Kennedy grew up in a family that talked often about politics and “the realities of the world.”
UnBail has since pivoted to developing a product Kennedy describes as a Google Waze-like mobile app to help defendants navigate the criminal justice system. It walks them through each part of the legal process, from arrest to arraignment to post-release, while providing pertinent details such as case numbers and lawyer information.
“We want to get information into the hands of the folks navigating a system that very few of us are trained to maneuver,” Kennedy says, noting that defendants must complete around 200 distinct tasks throughout their legal proceedings. It’s a daunting proposition for most people, especially for low-income defendants assigned to a public defender.
In fact, she saw the repercussions play out in her personal life when two family members were charged with similar crimes. The one with money and connections went to a weekend program in a hotel. The other went to jail.
With unBail, she’s working to democratize the information about the criminal legal system to ensure all defendants are treated fairly.“
When one person is arrested, it has a ripple effect beyond that person to their family and community,” Kennedy says. “When you try to do the math on how that impacts our country and communities, it’s kind of impossible.”
Rather than be overwhelmed by these facts, Kennedy and the team at unBail are choosing to narrowly focus on one aspect of the problem.
It was a busy summer for the organization, which participated in two accelerators, including the Lab @ Cuyahoga County. Next up is a nationwide search for a developer in 2021.
“Throughout my work and my life, I’ve had the opportunity to bear witness to inequality of the legal system and the effects on families,” Kennedy says. “I really wanted to do something about that.”
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