Follow the Data: Google Ups Its Support for Criminal Justice Reform

photo:  Paul Brady Photography/shutterstock

photo:  Paul Brady Photography/shutterstock

If there’s anything Google does well, it’s data. And data-centered projects are an expanding area of focus for justice system reformers across the country. So we weren’t too surprised late last month to see deal out more support to a number of organizations trying to make headway. It has been interesting to watch the tech giant’s turn to racial justice and a broad program of inclusion, especially given the criticism it’s getting on multiple fronts lately.

To start with the positives, Google’s philanthropic arm has keyed into the damaging effects of mass incarceration and racially unjust policing, and has already pitched in significantly. It began in the Bay Area, awarding several million to hometown racial justice organizations in 2015 and 2016. Including its latest $7.5 million, the company has disbursed a total of $32 million to justice system reformers across the country, making it among the larger funders in this space. Quantitative methods are the obvious focus, with grantees like Measures for Justice, the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Center for Policing Equity receiving support for data-based strategies.'s latest set of grants continues in that vein with $4 million to the Vera Institute of Justice to measure the economic impact of incarceration in rural places. It gave another $1 million to LatinoJustice to “improve the quality of Latinx criminal justice data and shape the narrative and storytelling on the impact of mass incarceration in Latinx communities,” according to principal Justin Steele. 

It gave the remaining money to the Leadership Conference Education Fund and the R Street Institute’s Justice for Work Coalition, supporting partnerships between communities and police while building more support for reform. Google employees have also been on hand as volunteers to support these projects. That’s a trend we’re seeing a lot of lately from tech funders, especially as the Pledge 1% movement grows in scope, encouraging companies not only to donate money and products, but also employee time. 

Related: Taking the Pledge: Inside the Next Big Wave of Tech Philanthropy

For its part, Google is keen to demonstrate commitment to a more comprehensive brand of corporate philanthropy. This fall, the company announced a billion-dollar philanthropic game plan for the next five years. Education, workforce development and economic opportunity in the U.S. and abroad are centerpieces of that agenda. But inclusion is another big pillar, and racial bias and inequity is the current grantmaking focus, particularly in the criminal justice system.

    Despite the Trump administration’s hard line on matters of law and order, this has been a fairly dynamic space, lately. Facing an extremely decentralized law enforcement system, many national reformers see local data management as a key to gauging problems and advancing solutions, county by county if necessary. In particular, Measures for Justice, a Google grantee, has received wide philanthropic support for centralizing disparate datasets. 

    Other big names here include the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (through grantees like the Misdemeanor Justice Project), the MacArthur Foundation (its Safety and Justice Challenge), Bill Ackman’s Pershing Square Foundation, and, this year, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The Charles Koch Foundation has also been active here. Beyond simple data collection, many of the projects receiving support pilot specific strategies like diverting low-level cases away from the jail system and processing cases in a more streamlined way. Funders see the front end of the criminal justice system as particularly ripe for evidence-based reform.

    These are promising initiatives, and represent another way philanthropic support for “civic tech” can make a difference on the ground. But it’s hard to lose sight of the recent criticisms laid at Google’s doorstep. From acting as a monopoly to stifling inconvenient research, from undermining personal privacy to under-compensating female employees, those charges cover a lot of ground. But so does Google’s expanding philanthropy. As always with these big companies, grey areas abound.