Momentum: With Gains on Criminal Justice Reform, More Grants Flow From a Top Funder


Even as the Trump administration talks tough on law and order, foundations are continuing to push forward criminal justice reform, focusing their efforts on cities, counties and states where they are working in close concert with local officials amenable to changes.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is one funder at the forefront of this push. Launched in 2015, MacArthur’’s Safety and Justice Challenge recently announced $22 million in new grants to further its efforts to change who spends time in jail and for how long. It’s giving grants to 25 cities and counties—13 of which have previously participated in the challenge and 12 new jurisdictions.

With 2.2 million people in prisons or jails, the United States leads the world in incarceration. That represents an increase of 500 percent over the last 40 years, according to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group dedicated to sentencing reform. People of color make up a disproportionate share of the incarcerated population. A whopping 67 percent of prisoners are people of color, despite the fact that they make up only about 37 percent of the U.S. population. A black man is six times more likely to be incarcerated than a white man.

To tackle this challenge, a number of funders have zeroed in on the front end of the criminal justice system. In the case of MacArthur’s Safety and Justice Challenge, the focus is on reforming jails rather than prisons.

The majority of people in jails have not been tried yet and so have not been convicted of any crime. Many have just been arrested or can’t afford cash bail and are awaiting trial. Under the law, they are presumed innocent. Jail time can have real repercussions, though. Time spent in jail takes people away from their families, communities and jobs. The emotional and financial fallout is real, even if a person is later found innocent.

On top of that, nearly three-quarters of the the jail population, including those who have been sentenced and those who have not yet been tried, were arrested for nonviolent traffic, property drug or public order offenses, according to the Vera Institute. That means most do not pose a threat to their communities.

The latest $22 million from MacArthur brings the total invested through the foundation’s challenge to $148 million since it started in 2015. That money has been spread across 52 cities and counties in 32 states. Broadly, the hope is that with these funds, local jurisdictions will reduce the number of people in their jails, address the racial and ethnic disparities present in jail populations and make systems more just and equitable.

Last year, MacArthur gave $11.3 million to municipalities participating in the challenge. This year’s grants nearly double that.

“There is growing demand for criminal justice reform across the country, and local jurisdictions are leading the way,” said Laurie Garduque, MacArthur’s director of justice reform. “MacArthur is increasing our investment because we are seeing promising results and an appetite for more reform as evidenced by the diversity and creativity of the solutions implemented and tested across the network. While progress is not always easy, and there is no single solution or quick fix, these jurisdictions are proving it is possible to rethink local justice systems from the ground up with forward-looking, smart solutions.”


MacArthur says that in the three years since the project launched, it’s seen some meaningful, early successes. In Philadelphia, jail population is down 36 percent from 2015, when the city joined the challenge. In Cook County, jail population is down by 26 percent.

The 12 jurisdictions new to the challenge will get $50,000 each to spend on a single innovation program. Those projects range from forging partnerships with local domestic violence centers to establishing community crisis centers for adults with mental health issues.

The 13 returning jurisdictions are where the real money is going with this set of grants. Grants to these cities and counties range from $350,000 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to $4 million in Philadelphia.

Cities and counties are trying a range of tactics to reduce jail populations and address disparities. In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, grants will support expanding defense representation and pretrial services. In Baton Rouge, the city is working on a police-led project to keep people from entering jails at the point of arrest. In San Francisco, the city is making implicit bias training the standard for law enforcement.

As mentioned earlier, Philadelphia scored the biggest grant in this round, which brings the total amount the city has received from the challenge to $7.65 million. The city has seen some promising success—jail population is down by more than a third since 2015—but also has the longest way to go. Philadelphia has the highest incarceration rate of any big city in the country.

The city set a goal to cut its 2015 jail population in half by 2020. To do that, the city will use the MacArthur grant and its own funds toward limiting admission to jails, and reductions in the time to process a case, probation violations, and reliance on cash bail.  

A report from the Prison Policy Initiative suggests that focusing on jails may be a smart bet for MacArthur. First of all, jails are often overlooked when it comes to conversations about criminal justice reform, which often focus on pieces of the system that happen later in the criminal justice process, like sentencing or the prisons themselves. On top of that, few people understand just how many people move in and out of the country’s jails each year.

Of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. criminal justice system, about 615,000 are housed in its jails. Of that, only about 110,000 have been convicted of a crime. That means about 465,000 of the people sitting in jails across the country are still presumed innocent.

Even those numbers are misleadingly low, wrote the initiative’s Executive Director Peter Wagner and Senior Policy Analyst Wendy Sawyer.

“Every year, 626,000 people walk out of prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year,” they wrote. “Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted. Some have just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days, and others are too poor to make bail and must remain behind bars until their trial.”

MacArthur is far from alone in its fight to reform the criminal justice system. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is another big player in the space. The foundation took over the Obama Administration's Data-Driven Justice Initiative when President Obama left office. Like MacArthur’s Safety and Justice Challenge, the initiative focuses on local action, funding evidence-based interventions that can be replicated in other jurisdictions with federal intervention.

In 2015, the Arnold Foundation convened a coalition of philanthropists from the left and right ends of the ideological spectrum to work together on criminal justice reform. The Coalition for Public Safety includes MacArthur, along with the Ford Foundation and Koch Industries—both have given to the cause independently, as well.

Charles Koch has given to criminal justice reform through his foundation. So far, his signature is big gifts to fund centers focused on reform on law school campuses. That included a $2.2 million gift to the Quattrone Center for Fair Administration of Justice at University of Pennsylvania Law School and a $3.5 million gift to South Methodist University to launch the Deason Family Criminal Justice Reform Center at its law school.

On the left, George Soros’ Open Society Foundation has long been working on criminal justice reform with a focus on state and local policies. Ford’s work in this area got a boost when Agnes Gund donated the proceeds from selling a painting to create the Art for Justice Fund, which is housed at the foundation.

Other funders working in this space include relative newcomers, such as the Open Philanthropy Project, backed by Facebook’s Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna; the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Ballmer Group. Meanwhile, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has continued its decades-long work on behalf of kids caught up in the juvenile justice system.