Kirsten D. Levingston, Ford Foundation

TITLE: Program Officer

FUNDING AREAS: Reforming civil and criminal justice systems

CONTACT: k.levingston@fordfoundation.org, 212-573-5000

IP TAKE: After passing the bar, Levingston "litigated environmental justice cases on behalf of communities of color" at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Los Angeles. The struggle to acknowledge racial bias in the legal system has resurfaced as an area of interest in Levingston's grantmaking.

PROFILE: It's not difficult to see that the American justice system does not work as well as it could; some would argue it doesn't work at all. More difficult than acknowledging a problem, especially in this area, is figuring out what the heck to do about it. Kirsten D. Levingston has made it the precise goal of her career to get this information and disseminate it.

Levingston is a former attorney and policy advocate who now serves as a program officer at the Ford Foundation. She works for the U.S. wing of the Ford Foundation's Reforming Civil and Criminal Justice Systems initiative. (Katherine Wilhelm manages the same initiative in China.) The aim of this area in Ford's grantmaking is to reduce discrimination in the criminal justice system and to ensure that all people receive comparable treatment when they go to trial.

This program also seeks to ensure that everyone receives the quality representation they deserve in the courtroom, along with the information they need to make the best legal decisions. The foundation works with independent research centers, law schools, and government to achieve these goals. The key things Ford wants to fund here are legal and policy advocacy for justice reform and applied research capable of identifying and proposing realistic solutions to systemic problems in the criminal justice system.

During her schooling and early career, Levingston jumped back and forth between the east and west coasts. She earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Southern California and then a JD at Harvard Law School.

Levingston has 20 years of experience as a lawyer. She also spent some time as director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. At Brennan, Levingston worked to improve the accuracy of the system used by the Census Bureau to gauge the size of the incarcerated population in the United States. As a private attorney, she has practiced criminal law in Washington, D.C., and worked for the city's Department of Justice as a special assistant as well.

Levingston's legacy also includes developing the National Defender Leadership Project (NDLP) at the Vera Institute in New York City. Typically, police chiefs, prosecuting attorneys, and judges dominate the process of criminal justice policymaking. NDLP encourages public defense attorneys to engage more actively in this process and teaches them how to do so.

In recent years, Levingston has procured $1.7 million for the Vera Institute through Ford. Of that amount, $700,000 went to research that shows the impact of race on courtroom decisions and to efforts to clue prosecutors in on alternatives to incarceration, such as Common Justice. Another $1 million went to Vera for general expenses. This $1 million was the largest single grant authorized by Ford for criminal justice reform in the past few years.

Other large grants to come from Ford's criminal justice reform initiative include $850,000 for the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama to help expose racial bias as it affects jury selection and support defendants who have not received fair treatment by the state's legal system, as well as more than $900,000 for the Defender Association in core support for the Seattle/King County Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) pilot program to address low-level crimes by diverting offenders into community-based services instead of jail.