Data Quest: Why This Wonky Criminal Justice Group is Pulling in the Big Bucks

photo:  Skyward Kick Productions/shutterstock

photo:  Skyward Kick Productions/shutterstock

The world of crowded jails, tense courtrooms, and cops on the beat is a far cry from the air-conditioned spaces data wonks usually inhabit. But according to Measures for Justice (MFJ), better data is key to reforming America’s hyper-localized criminal justice system. Plenty of well-heeled funders are inclined to agree. In fact, some of the hottest names in philanthropy are flocking to support the organization, which was founded by lawyer and author Amy Bach in 2011. 

The hedge funder manager Bill Ackman backed MFJ early on, and in a big way. Bach went in to pitch Ackman and the board of his Pershing Square Foundation, not knowing what to expect. She blew Ackman away with her first data-crammed slide. Ten minutes later, the story goes, Ackman said the board didn’t want to prolong her fundraising and committed to supporting Measures for Justice to the tune of over $3 million. Bach later said she was so stunned by the unexpected turn of events that that the board feared she’d walk out the door and into Manhattan traffic.

The Ford Foundation came in even earlier, giving MFJ a $200,000 grant in 2013. Support for Measures for Justice has only increased over time. The MacArthur Foundation has given MFJ over $2 million. The Open Society Foundations is also a backer, as is the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which has kicked in $2 million. Earlier this year, MFJ pulled in a $1.5 million grant from Google.org. And, in May, it received its biggest grant to date: $6.5 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to help MFJ expand its work into California. 

Why are funders so excited about MFJ? The big picture, as we've been reporting, is that top grantmakers in the criminal justice space, which also include the Charles Koch Foundation, are keenly interested in developing better data to guide a growing push for reform. There's a strong consensus about the need to better understand a highly fragmented criminal justice system and the vast disparities in how it treats people and advances public safety. MFJ's tag-line is "No data. No change."

    The simple idea is that it's impossible to improve the performance of the criminal justice system without a way to gauge and track that performance.

    So what, exactly, does Measures for Justice measure? The short answer: lots of things. The group wants to improve the performance of the criminal justice system in three key areas—public safety, fair process, and fiscal responsibility. To do that, MFJ is tracking scores of metrics on a county-by-county basis. Core measures include a range of items like percentage of cases prosecuted, sentence lengths, and fine amounts. Those measures can be cross-referenced with a set of “companion” and “contextual” measures encompassing demographic categories like race and income. 

    MFJ’s Data Portal, which went online earlier this year, shows select measures from only six states: Wisconsin, Florida, Washington, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Utah. But with incoming support from Google, CZI and other major funders, the goal is to get to 20 states by 2020. And there will always be more data to collect. According to Communications Director Fiona Maazel, current priorities involve “scaling up, building infrastructure, and automating the process to build a sophisticated data company that can accommodate large amounts of data from new sources.”

    “The datasets are out there,” says Maazel, “But what’s notable is that criminal justice has no central repository for all this local data. And collecting it isn't the easiest proposition.” MFJ employs a rigorous process to collect and collate datasets (detailed here), and often sends research teams to target counties in person. 

    MFJ is a nonprofit, but it positions its work to speak to the tech entrepreneur mindset. In part, that means staying apart from a politicized reform agenda. As Maazel put it, “Part of what’s been attractive is that MFJ doesn't have an agenda […] we do not decide what is and is not a best practice.” That approach has limited potential pushback from county officials and kept a variety of funding options in play.

    Despite its apolitical, data-first approach, MFJ’s roots lie with a narrative-based call to arms. In her 2009 book Ordinary Justice: How America Holds Court, Amy Bach surveyed a criminal justice system plagued by geographic inconsistencies and a lack of self-evaluation and performance measurement. Justice can look very different depending on where you live. While unconscious bias and racism no doubt feed into that, other inconsistencies come from simply not knowing how everyone else is doing things. 

    Bach founded MFJ in 2011 to throw some light (or rather, data) on the problem. With a seed grant from Echoing Green and follow-up support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the project piloted in Milwaukee and soon expanded to the entire state of Wisconsin. The 2013 Ford grant and support from Draper Richards Kaplan provided more early-stage funding, and the Pershing Square Foundation's big grant in 2014 allowed MFJ to expand to five states. 

    Measures for Justice is a critical piece of an expanding data infrastructure for criminal justice reform. It's supporting MacArthur’s $100 million Safety and Justice Challenge, the Misdemeanor Justice Project (backed in part by LJAF), and other reform efforts under way. 

    Meanwhile, as we've reported, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation is continuing the Obama administration's Data-Driven Justice initiative, hiring former White House advisors Lynn Overmann and Kelly Jin.  

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