Recipe for Jail Reform: A National Funder Working With Local Officials

photo:  Gabriele Maltinti/shutterstock

photo:  Gabriele Maltinti/shutterstock

You’ll have to forgive us if we associate the MacArthur Foundation with $100 million these days, with all the attention to 100&Change, its high-profile competition to put Powerball-like cash behind a single breakthrough idea. But that isn't the only initiative by the Chicago-based funder that involves a lot of zeros and advances the mandate Julia Stasch laid out in 2015 to make "big bets," working "primarily through programs and projects that are larger in scale, time-limited in nature, or designed to reach specific objectives," as she said at the time. 

Focusing on criminal justice reform, MacArthur’s Safety and Justice Challenge is set to top the $100 million figure. This is also a competitive grants program, but one that spreads resources among many counties spanning the U.S. with the aim of reducing over-incarceration by improving local jail policies. 

This week, MacArthur announced another set of Safety and Justice grants. Totaling $11.3 million, the grants benefit eight counties that “are proving that everyone benefits when local justice systems are made to be fairer, to responsibly steward taxpayer dollars, and to safely improve outcomes for families and communities,” as Laurie Garduque, MacArthur’s director for justice reform, put it.

In early 2015, we reported on the new program with optimism. Back then, the White House and U.S. Justice Department stood strongly behind criminal justice reform and there was a sense that the pendulum was really swinging in this area—away from a Draconian law-and-order approach that was inflicting enormous collateral damage on American society and especially communities of color. This sense of possibility helped draw in a growing number of funders that saw a chance to have major impact in a space that had long frustrated advocates. 

Attitudes among reformers have been less buoyant in 2017, with the Trump Administration reverting to a hardline stance on criminal justice issues and the Justice Department looking to undo Obama-era reform efforts. 

As we've reported, though, funders backing criminal justice reform still see lots of potential for progress thanks to the beauty of federalism. States and localities have primary authority over America's jails, courts and police, and many officials in these arenas, of both parties, are keenly interested in reducing the high financial and social costs of mass incarceration while also improving public safety. 

The local appetite for reform explains why MacArthur's Safety and Justice Challenge was popular from the start, with nearly 200 applications from jurisdictions in 45 states. Throughout the program’s two-odd years, MacArthur has emphasized the availability of additional funds down the line. Earlier this year, MacArthur built on its initial Safety and Justice grants with an Innovation Fund supporting specific reform projects in 20 more counties.


MacArthur is giving this week’s $11.3 million to counties that initially received support in 2015 and demonstrated subsequent “promise and progress.” Grantees include urban centers like Cook County (Chicago), Los Angeles County and Palm Beach County, as well as more lightly populated locales like Ada County, Idaho, and Pennington County, South Dakota. 

Why the focus on jails? As we’ve reported, many criminal justice funders see the front end of the criminal justice system as a ripe target for reform. According to MacArthur, around 75 percent of those held in local jails—whether for small-time offenses or to await trial—are “behind bars for nonviolent traffic, property, drug or public order offenses.” In many jurisdictions, other injustices are present. Men of color, for instance, are often held at far higher rates than local demographics would suggest. Even for those who are initially innocent, jail time is associated with a higher likelihood of future criminal behavior.

But changing things at local jails has to happen on a case-by-case basis—that's the agony of federalism—and MacArthur’s Safety and Justice program relies on local input and reform plans. At the same time, counties receive implementation support and expert technical assistance from the foundation and the dozen or so partners in its Challenge Network, including groups like the Vera Institute and the Center for Court Innovation. Specific strategies here include diverting low-level cases away from the jail system, streamlined case processing, and improvements to services for arrestees with drug abuse or mental health problems. 

MacArthur positions Safety and Justice as an ongoing learning process: It studies and tests local strategies, providing the basis for further reform. That may be why we’ve seen so much funder enthusiasm around collecting data on such a widely dispersed set of challenges. MacArthur, for instance, is one of many major funders backing Measures for Justice, a bid to gauge the performance of criminal justice jurisdictions across a variety of metrics. Other funders include the Pershing Square Foundation, Ford, Open Society, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.   

Also on the data front, the Arnold Foundation is carrying on the Obama administration’s Data-Driven Justice Initiative. Charles Koch has also given for criminal justice research this year. Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna’s Open Philanthropy Project, meanwhile, has taken a complementary path centered on political advocacy and alternatives to the “tough on crime” approach.

Jail policy reform isn’t the only way MacArthur engages with criminal justice issues. The foundation has led a growing response by funders to the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago, including through local rapid-response grants centered on the summer months. This past summer, MacArthur also gave to support direct intervention programs in Chicago to research the problem and to grow overall nonprofit capacity in the city.