Much of criminal justice reform advocacy focuses on the problem of mass incarceration. With more than 2 million people in jails and prisons, this concern is natural. However, a much larger population of people—about 4.5 million—are on parole and probation. Overall, more than 6.5 million Americans are involved in the criminal justice system.
The REFORM Alliance is a national organization that wants to reduce the number of people involved in the criminal justice system, starting with probation and parole. The alliance’s leadership includes leading entrepreneurs, entertainers and media personalities. This past week, the REFORM Alliance announced the appointment of a new partner, one with deep involvement in criminal justice reform: funder and attorney Laura Arnold.
With her husband John, Arnold is co-founder of Arnold Ventures, formerly the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Like other founding partners, Arnold has contributed millions of dollars to the REFORM Alliance. Other founding partners include rapper Meek Mill, e-commerce entrepreneur Michael Rubin, CNN commentator Van Jones, Grammy Award-winning rapper and producer Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, philanthropist Clara Wu Tsai, and financier and philanthropist Daniel Loeb.
“America needs bold, visionary, systemic change to its criminal justice system," Arnold said in a REFORM Alliance news release. "The kind of change that doesn't settle for tweaks to the status quo, but asks instead how we would design our system if we had the chance to do it over, in the smartest and fairest ways possible. REFORM shares this vision, and is importantly led by people with diverse political perspectives and people with direct experience in the criminal justice system. Arnold Ventures is proud to support them.”
Arnold is a natural fit for the REFORM Alliance. Over the past few years, Arnold Ventures has committed more than $100 million in grants toward criminal justice reform efforts, including research and advocacy work. Most recently, $40 million in Arnold funding helped launch the National Partnership for Pretrial Justice, a coalition of groups to reform pretrial justice nationwide. In the fall of 2018, Arnold announced a collaboration with Pew Charitable Trusts to reform probation and parole.
“Laura is one of the leading minds and mobilizers on criminal justice reform, and we’re fortunate to have her on the team,” REFORM Alliance CEO Van Jones said in an Alliance news release. “Her addition to our founding board will strengthen our platform and bring more experience in this fight. Together, we’ll continue driving the national conversation around reform and inspiring people to take action through public advocacy.”
The REFORM Alliance began in response to the 2017 reincarceration of Meek Mill for a parole violation. He was charged with assaulting two people in St. Louis and given a two- to four-year prison sentence. This launched the #FreeMeek movement on social media and helped lead to his release in 2018.
Community supervision measures such as probation and parole are intended to provide alternatives to incarceration, but unfortunately, they have become major drivers of the nation’s prison population. Thousands of offenders end up behind bars because of technical violations of their probation or parole. Research by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that 45 percent of state prison admissions nationwide are due to new offenses or technical violations by parolees and probationers.
REFORM’s advocacy actions include introduction of the Smart Probation Act in the Pennsylvania Legislature. The proposed bill would cap probationary periods, as well as incentivize successful supervision for probationers.
Arnold’s appointment further raises the profile of the REFORM Alliance, and strengthens this part of Arnold Ventures’ criminal justice advocacy work.
While Arnold Ventures works across many issues in pursuit of its core objective, which is “to maximize opportunity and minimize injustice,” its criminal justice work has been especially dynamic lately as the foundation has broadened its efforts to reform more aspects of a system that it says “strips too many people of their jobs, families, health and dignity.” Laura Arnold, a Yale-trained lawyer, has been the leading driver of this work, and is increasingly stepping up her public profile as a reform advocate, including through her new podcast, Deep Dive with Laura Arnold.