Forget Washington. Criminal Justice Funders Have Big Plans at the Local Level

In his campaign, Donald Trump positioned himself as a law-and-order candidate. Targeting immigration specifically, he also made provocative statements about urban crime, culminating in his promise to put an end to “American carnage” in his inaugural address. With the likely confirmation of Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general, many expect a sharp change from President Obama’s reform-friendly approach to criminal justice.  

This shift comes at a time when private funders—including some newcomers to this space—have ramped up efforts to change criminal justice policies in a range of areas, as we've been reporting, including policing, pretrial practices, sentencing, the death penalty, and more. 

Will this momentum now stall out in the age of Trump, with Washington under full GOP control? 

That seems unlikely. For the majority of those in the criminal justice system, federal policies mean far less than what’s happening at the local level—which is exactly where top funders have been focusing. (Ninety percent of people who are locked up in America are in city/county jails and state prisons.) In recent weeks, two key players—the MacArthur Foundation and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF)—have signaled that they are moving forward energetically on local criminal justice reform.  

MacArthur and Arnold are channeling many of the ideas of the Obama administration’s Data-Driven Justice Initiative, funding evidence-based replicable programs at the local level that require no action or approval from Washington.

On February 1, MacArthur announced a new Innovation Fund, supporting 20 local jurisdictions with grants and "expert technical assistance in designing and implementing local reforms." The Innovation Fund is the latest chapter in MacArthur’s $100 million Safety and Justice Challenge, a five-year funding push to reform criminal justice in the localities.

We’ve been following the Safety and Justice Challenge through its initial round of grants, awarded to 20 jurisdictions in 2015. Going to large and small cities alike, the focus was on reducing jail (not prison) time. That’s because local jails, where suspects await trial, are where some of the system’s worst abuses take place. Nonviolent offenders and even innocent arrestees might find themselves locked up for a lengthy stay if they lack bail. Otherwise productive lives are ruined that way.

MacArthur’s front-end focus involves cultivating a network of model sites that are actively reducing jail time and ethnic disparities. A key goal, here, is finding out what works. In 2016, 10 of the original 20 jurisdictions received additional support as “core sites” in the Safety and Justice Challenge network. 

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The Innovation Fund adds 20 more jurisdictions to the mix, on top of the 20 already receiving support. And “innovation” is the key word here, with more counties and cities now engaged in interesting experiments. 

“Local jurisdictions are leading the way on justice reform,” said MacArthur President Julia Stasch. “Demand for reform at the local level is considerable and growing, as evidenced by the number, diversity, and creativity of the applications we received. This momentum is encouraging, particularly as the federal justice reform landscape evolves and shifts.”

You can see a list here of the jurisdictions receiving grants of $50,000 and technical support through the Innovation Fund. 

What are some larger jurisdictions actually working on? Well, Atlanta is developing a case management data gathering system. That’ll make it easy for public defenders to hold service providers accountable for the progress of their clients. The state of Delaware is improving how it handles releasing mentally ill individuals, including implementing a tracking system to gauge impact. San Francisco is building an online tool to pinpoint racial and ethnic disparities in its justice system.

Related: What's New in MacArthur's Long Battle to Reform Juvenile Justice?

Meanwhile, the Arnold Foundation is also going forward full speed with its own locally focused criminal justice grantmaking. The foundation recently announced that it will carry on the Data-Driven Justice Initiative. It’s even hiring former White House tech advisors Lynn Overmann and Kelly Jin as VP and director of data-driven justice. 

What exactly is “data-driven justice?” Well, in part, this wonk-friendly effort aims to offset the fragmentation and lack of transparency that surrounds local criminal justice. With the help of Amazon and other private tech experts, the Obama administration aimed to build a platform for local jurisdictions to combine and share data on at-risk people moving through their justice and health systems. 

Now, with Arnold’s support, the initiative can continue that effort, letting localities link datasets on 911 calls, jail bookings, hospital admissions, domestic violence, and arrests. The overall aim: implementing the right interventions to lessen the need for expensive jail time and hospital visits, among other things. 

Like MacArthur, the Arnold Foundation is no newcomer to criminal justice reform. As a funder whose priorities often bridge the right-left divide, Arnold has emerged as an important player in this space. In 2015, it helped convene a bipartisan Coalition for Public Safety. That initiative brought together disparate players like Ford, MacArthur, and Koch Industries in an effort to advance reform efforts at the national level. 

It remains to be seen what will happen in Congress on criminal justice, but the signs aren't promising, given the law-and-order orientation of the Trump team. As a funder, though, Arnold has put most of its eggs in the local basket, which explains why its criminal justice work shows no signs of losing momentum.

Finally, it's worth mentioning what the newest big player in this funding space, the Open Philanthropy Project, is up to right now. Chloe Cockburn, who leads OPP's criminal justice work, told us that in 2017 it "expects to give away approximately $25 million for criminal justice reform, the vast majority of which will focus on state and local work. Criminal justice policies and practices are largely shaped at the local level, and we think that the biggest policy victories yet lie ahead."

The Open Philanthropy Project is mainly backed by Good Ventures, the foundation of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna. So far, in entering the criminal justice space, OPP seems keen on challenging a "tough-on-crime" paradigm that too often still drives policy. Cockburn told us:

We invest in grantees working to build outside pressure to hold criminal justice systems accountable to deliver safety without excessive incarceration and to provide the necessary tools to do it. When considering potential grantees, we seek leadership that is politically sophisticated and takes advocacy, power building, and organizing seriously. While there are numerous technical problems to solve in order to make progress in this area, we believe that this is primarily a political problem that will require political solutions. We think this focus on political problem solving sets our giving apart from others.

Cockburn is right that OPP's approach is different. Both MacArthur and Arnold are playing an inside game, working closely with practitioners in public systems to make change. Meanwhile, OPP sees itself as keeping up the pressure for reform. This seems like a promising mix of funding approaches—which is one more reason to feel optimistic that criminal justice reform will continue moving forward in the age of Trump.