Changing Hearts and Minds: How the Art For Justice Fund Hopes to Reduce Mass Incarceration

Photo: Joseph Sohm/shutterstock

Photo: Joseph Sohm/shutterstock

Last year, the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and collector and philanthropist Agnes Gund launched the $100 million Art for Justice Fund to reduce U.S. prison populations.

The partnership marked a rare and possibly portentous example of a patron wielding her philanthropic and financial leverage to tackle a vexing social challenge.

Late last year, the fund announced its inaugural round of grantmaking: $22 million to 30 criminal justice reform groups and education and arts initiatives.

And in late June, the fund announced its spring 2018 round of 38 grant recipients. While phase one focused on literary organizations such as writers' workshops and theater groups, the most recent round of grants, which range from $25,000 to $2 million, emphasize support for women and children.

"We know that children whose parents get trapped in the criminal justice system are more likely to be incarcerated later themselves," Gund said. "We need to break this vicious cycle that is devastating the lives of individuals, families and entire communities."

I recently had the opportunity to check in with Helena Huang, project director for the Art for Justice Fund, for some additional context surrounding the second round of funding and how the fund's work is playing out on the ground.

The fund's press release says that the latest round of grants "use the power of art to transform hearts and minds and transform the way we think about criminal justice in America." Extending this line of thinking a bit further, I asked Huang about the fund's plans to change the hearts and minds of members from a particularly powerful demographic—the federal and state legislators who can rewrite the laws.

"Changing public policy lies at the very heart of our strategies to end mass incarceration," Huang said. Consequently, as a "time-limited" five-year fund, Art for Justice aims to disrupt the main drivers of high prison populations. These drivers link to the fund's key areas of interest.

Area No. 1, "Keeping people out of jail and prison," acknowledges that. According to Huang, too many people are going to jail who "don't belong there." These individuals may be too poor to pay cash bail or afford the medical or psychological care they need. And so the fund is focusing on bail reform and the role of prosecutors.

Area No. 2, "Shortening sentences," seeks to address excessive prison sentences, while No. 3, "Promoting reentry," recognizes that too many individuals face significant barriers to employment and well-being when they return home. As a result, the fund focuses on higher ed in prison, attacking barriers to reentry like employment discrimination, and supporting "ban the box" policies aimed at persuading employers to remove from their hiring applications the checkbox asking if applicants have a criminal record.

The second round of funding also finds Art for Justice awarding grants through its fourth area of interest, "Changing the narrative with art." Offerings here include the Art for Justice/Soros Justice Fellowship, "Imagining Justice" Arts Grants to enable individual artists to develop work about mass incarceration, and "Bearing Witness Fellowships," unrestricted $50,000 awards to writers enabling them to complete projects that speak to the human cost of mass incarceration.

Art For Justice also funds specific policy advocacy campaigns in states with high incarceration rates. For instance, the initiative funds the Ohio Transformation Fund, a 501(c)(3), which aims to address criminal justice reform and reduce the number and alleviate the racial disparity of youth and adults incarcerated in Ohio, as well as Stand Up for Ohio, a 501(c)(4), a coalition of community, labor, civil rights and environmental groups committed to building a coordinated movement for racial, social and economic justice in the state.

Through the Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign, Art for Justice, which is housed at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, is supporting a ballot initiative—the Drug and Criminal Justice Policies Initiative—to "reduce the number of people in prison for drug possession/use and to reallocated related cost savings to community-based drug treatment, crime survivor, and rehabilitation programs."

The initiative is "the only ballot measure campaign this midterm election cycle designed to reduce safely the number of people in prison and reallocate dollars into community-driven public safety programs," according to Huang.

"We are also working with local colleagues to see that artists/the arts are an active part of the campaign. Early polls show strong public support for this initiative."

It's worth remembering that the Art for Justice Fund is barely a year old. Yet in that short time frame, the fund, along with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, has placed the issue of mass incarceration front and center across the arts giving landscape.

The rapid evolution of Art for Justice has provided socially driven funders with a template for leveraging the arts to change public policy, and has shown metrics-driven naysayers—often referred to as "effective altruists"—how the arts can drive measurable positive outcomes.

More guidance is sure to follow. Later this year, the fund will host a summit in New Orleans with about 100 artists and activists as part of ongoing efforts to end mass incarceration. Huang said she and her team are also exploring new funding areas for future grant cycles.

"I am thrilled to support this mix of truly exceptional visionaries who are helping to change the way we think about criminal justice in America," Gund said on the heels of the fund's latest grant announcement. "From advocates to artists, storytellers to policy experts, each of our grantees is helping to dismantle an unjust system and culture that preys on vulnerable communities."

"I hope the Art for Justice Fund, and the work that we support, will inspire others to join the movement to end mass incarceration."