Criminal Justice Reform Is Gaining Steam. What Role Has Philanthropy Played?

Criminal justice reform is one area of philanthropy that's been rapidly gaining steam. A number of top foundations want to see what can be done to bring down incarceration rates, and are putting up capital in a variety of ways to work on the problem.

The Fall issue of Responsive Philanthropyrecently published by NCRP, takes a deep dive into the new funding for criminal justice reform, whichas Aaron Dorfman writescuts across a breadth of work now underway to change "policing, prosecution policies, reentry opportunities and more."

It's an exciting time for anyone who cares about criminal justice reform, as well as all the issues it touches on, beginning with race, and we've also been following this movement at Inside Philanthropy

We were struck earlier this year when an unlikely group of funders—Ford, MacArthur, Arnold, and Koch Industries—put up $5 million in funding to back a newly formed group, the Coalition for Public Safety, which supports new legislative and community initiatives that aim to reform criminal justice and end what ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero called our "40-year addiction to incarceration."

Related: Arnold's Latest Big Play: Corralling Unusual Bedfellows to Reform Criminal Justice

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation played a key role in orchestrating that effort, and has been one of the funders most active lately in pushing for criminal justice reform. Earlier this month, it put out a request for criminal justice research proposals as part of its effort "to build an evidence base about the approaches, innovations, and strategies that work best to improve public safety as well as fairness and efficiency in the criminal justice system." The foundation has put aside $14 million to support such research.

One reason that the Arnold Foundation is pushing so hard right now is that it, along with other funders, believes a window of opportunity has opened to make major progress on reform. In a statement in February about the new left-right coalition, the Arnolds said, "We strongly believe that the time is ripe for key reforms in criminal justice. There is growing momentum and consensus around a number of policy solutions."

Related: As the Odds Improve, MacArthur and Other Funders Step Up Fight for Criminal Justice Reform

What exactly are the big proposed reforms on the table and where does philanthropy fit into the growing push to change policies?

To get a better fix on the state of play at the federal level, I recently dropped into a meeting convened by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) with prison, policy, and police leaders in the state of Rhode Island, to discuss bipartisan legislation he submitted with Senator Cornyn (R-TX) called the CORRECTIONS Act. This bill, which was introduced in February, has been combined with sentencing reforms into a larger bill, which passed out of the Judiciary Committee recently. The larger bill is aptly named the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

This legislation seeks to recalibrate prison sentences for certain drug offenders and to grant judges greater discretion in sentencing for lower-level drug crimes. If passed, the legislation would make retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act, and would also reclassify inmates in the federal system so that they may be eligible for work study, education, early release, or halfway house programs. Sentencing reform is a huge issue that touches on many areas of criminal justice, since it affects both those entering into the system for the first time and those returning to incarceration as recidivists.

"It's going to take some more work, but there's a strong desire on both sides of the aisle, so there's room for real progress here," said Whitehouse. The unlikely alliance between Whitehouse and Cornyn, who are on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, is an example of the possibilities emerging for change. The two senators have been cultivating the terrain of corrections reform for several years now, and their home states have made some progress in putting new policies into practice. Both Rhode Island and Texas have found innovative ways to break the cycle of re-incarceration by offering programs that allow inmates to earn less restrictive forms of custody. According to Whitehouse, Rhode Island's reforms were followed with a 17 percent reduction in the state prison population, a 6 percent drop in three-year recidivism rates and a significant drop in crime. In Texas, similar reforms led to $2 billion in savings for taxpayers and the closure three unneeded facilities.

Working such levers of the criminal justice system can do big things to reduce incarceration rates. Which funders have been supporting these reforms, and what are some of their strategies?

One major focus of funding right now are front-end reforms that seek to keep people out of the criminal justice system. 

With $75 million in total funding, MacArthur's Safety and Justice Challenge is taking aim at the front-end reforms to reduce incarceration. The Challenge is currently funding 20 jurisdictions across the country working to safely reduce the use of jails and get people out of the pipeline for incarceration at this early contact point. This group of 20 jurisdictions will be whittled down to 10 jurisdictions in 2016, which, thanks to their evidence-based practices and their collaborative and innovative ways, will be eligible for a second round of funding ranging from $500,000 and $2 million annually, depending on the size of the jurisdiction.

Related: A Big New Attack on America's Wasteful and Unjust Jail System Gains Steam

In the past, MacArthur has funded some of the big research projects on incarceration. In 2014, it gave $425,000 to the National Academy of Science for a strategic communications campaign to disseminate its report called "The Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration: A National Academies Review." In 2011, it also gave the National Academy of Science $750,000, two-year grant for an expert panel "to review what is known and not known about the causes and consequences of high rates of incarceration."

The Arnold Foundation is also keenly interested in best practices to improve what happens on the front end of criminal justice reform, aiming to "improve decision making during the earliest part of the criminal justice process—from the time a defendant is arrested until the case is resolved." The foundation argues that what happens at this stage of the process is hugely important for both fairness and public safety, but judges, prosecutors, and other players in the system tend to make decisions "in a subjective manner without the aid of rigorous research and objective metrics on which approach—incarceration, supervision, diversion, etc.—will be most effective in protecting public safety in each case." 

The foundation points out that "in many jurisdictions, approximately half of the highest-risk defendants are released before trial, often with minimal or no supervision, while significant numbers of low-risk, non-violent defendants are detained." The Arnold Foundation wants "to fundamentally change how the system operates," so that evidence-based policies guide decisions. In its recent announcement of $14 million in new research funding, it expressed particular interest in backing research about the front end of the criminal justice system.

One of the best front-end ways to cut down the adult prison population is to reduce the numbers coming in as youth. Before it turned its focus to jails, MacArthur worked juvenile justice issues for many years. For example, it has given over $18 million in funding since 2010 to NEO Philanthropy, which used the money for a multi-state campaign that promoted juvenile justice reforms nationally and worked to keep disadvantaged youth from becoming involved in the adult system.

Annie E. Casey is another funder that's long been pushing to reduce the number of children sucked into the criminal justice system, and we've written about its success in pushing state-level juvenile justice reforms aimed at keeping kids from being locked up. Meanwhile, Atlantic Philanthropies invested $47 million between 2010 and 2014 in work to challenge zero-tolerance school discipline policies that often embroiled students in the criminal justice system, creating a "school-to-prison pipeline." That work has had significant impact in fostering policy change at the national, state, and local levels, as the foundation documented in a recent report

One exciting policy development we should mention on juvenile justice is that Governor Malloy of Connecticut recently offered a bold plan to raise the age of adult criminal justice involvement to 21, effectively moving 18- to 20-year-olds into the juvenile system. This is yet another reform that could spread nationally. 


Meanwhile, a range of other funders are pushing efforts to change the criminal justice system in various ways. 

The Open Society Foundations is a longtime player in this space, spending millions on various strategies to change national and state policy. OSF has been a leader in reducing the criminal penalities for drug crimes, efforts that have gained enormous traction in recent years as several states have moved to legalize marijuana. OSF has also backed larger advocacy efforts, for example, by supporting the Tides Center in California, which is building the movement to reduce incarceration in the state. In 2013, OSF made a $1,000,000 grant for the Tides Center's Californians for Safety and Justice project. This project provides the infrastructure for a "multi-pronged, multi-year campaign to reduce significantly corrections populations in the State of California."

Speaking of the Golden State, the California Endowment has been strongly interested in criminal justice reform. It granted $500,000 to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in 2014 for the purpose of "testing social innovation financing to improve health outcomes." The goal of this grant was to "explore financing options for evidence-based programs that would reduce violent crime, prison crowding and recidivism by offering a strengths-based alternative to prison for young men at risk for repeated, long-term system involvement in California."

The California Endowment also gave $400,000 in 2014 to the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, for the purpose of providing support for underserved communities to prevent involvement in criminal justice. The Ford Foundation is another supporter of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, awarding $500,000 in 2015 for general operating support. Ford has supported a wide range of other work in recent years to reform the criminal justice system. Grantees have included the Sentencing Project, the Innocence Project, and the Marshall Project. 

The Innocence Project, we should mention, has been a major recipient of grant money lately to advance its mission of "exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice." Beyond receiving funds from Ford, Arnold, and OSF, it's received major grants from the Pershing Square and Starr foundations. 

Foundations have also played a role in working on some of the back-end issues of criminal justice reform, like housing for ex-offenders. Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has taken an active role in preventing recidivism by developing housing options for ex-offenders. Hilton gave a grant of $2,000,000 in 2015 to the West Bay Housing Corporation in Los Angeles for its Breaking Barriers program, which partners with L.A. County's Probation Department to provide housing for those at risk for recidivism and homelessness.

There's much more that could be said on the subject of philanthropy and criminal justice. Many smaller funders are involved in the push for change that we haven't mentioned, like the Public Welfare Foundation.

Also, in addition to the reform efforts mentioned here, a whole other stream of foundation funding is focused on crime prevention and violence, particularly among youth. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been a major player in this space. Efforts like these could also help advance the overall goal of reducing the number of people involved in the criminal justice system. More broadly, of course, the success of philanthropy's efforts to improve education, fight poverty, and stabilize communities could have a big impact on crime and justice in America.