Next Stop for Data Philanthropy: Reforming the Criminal Justice System

The statistics on the American criminal justice system are not pretty, whether tracking mass incarceration, police shootings, or recidivism rates. Can activists and law enforcement alike use this sea of grim numbers to fix the system? At least two funders think so.

Philanthropy is fixated lately on the concept of analyzing large stores of data to take on difficult problems. We’re seeing huge funds going toward data science for use in fields like health and wellness, brain science, and marine biology. Funders are clearly drawn to the idea of leveraging smarts and technology to crack an intractable problem. 


One of the latest fields embracing the concept is criminal justice. Two funders—Pershing Square Foundation and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation—just announced seven-figure grants that will attempt to use data to improve how we police, try, and punish people accused of crime. 

It’s not surprising these two foundations are drawn to data analysis, as both John Arnold and Bill Ackman (the Wall Streeter behind Pershing Square), are relatively young numbers guys who made their money in hedge funds and are looking to fund breakthrough work as philanthropists. But the two grants demonstrate two different approaches to this multifaceted and sometimes controversial subject.  

Pershing Square Foundation just announced a $3.1 million grant to Measures for Justice, a project of attorney and journalist Amy Bach. The nonprofit gathers and compares data from across county justice systems related to police, victims, defendants, public defenders, prosecutors, judges, and convicted offenders. 

Measures for Justice has a distinctly activist or watchdog approach, rating and comparing different systems in a publicly available database, and flagging systemic problems in the data that need fixing. Or, as Bach states on its website, it gives “local citizens and policy makers ammunition to say: We have to do better.” 

Bill and Karen Ackman have been ramping up their giving in recent years, with an ambitious mix of giving for education, poverty, global development and justice, and eye for making investments that can be "catalytic." In the justice area, they've been big funders of the Innocence Project, while global grantees include Human Rights Watch and Seeds of Peace.

Related: Bill Ackman Is Moving Money Fast Through His Pershing Square Foundation. Where's It Going?

The other grant, from John and Laura Arnold, awarded $1.4 million to the University of Maryland to support the Maryland Data Analysis Center (MDAC). The program connects researchers at the university with criminal justice agencies to aid them in putting their data to work.  

This grant is more focused on providing knowledge to justice agencies, citing the abundance of data they collect, but the lack of expertise or funding to analyze it. The initial project is looking at how jurisdictions use the terminology “commitment to state custody” differently in juvenile records, and how that might be skewing adult sentencing. 

We’ve written a lot about the Arnolds and their approach to philanthropy, as they seek transformative changes to education, research, and the justice system. To give some insight into this program, it’s run by Anne Milgram, a former New Jersey attorney general who is a strong proponent of using “risk assessment tools” that analyze statistical probabilities of risk to inform criminal sentencing. In a TED talk in 2013, Milgram closed by saying, “Some people call it data science. I call it Moneyballing criminal justice.” 

Related: The Billionaire Couple Targeting Shoddy and Secretive Science

One interesting thing about this issue, especially as philanthropists play a larger role in it, is that using statistics to improve the system isn’t the no-brainer you might think it is. Big data, if seen as a cure-all, can be a dangerous thing. We’re still barely learning how to properly harness it.  

While use of statistical sentencing tools has grown quickly, and can reduce recidivism and costs, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last year opposed certain such tools, on the basis that they may exacerbate bias in sentencing among African Americans and other minorities. Also, let's not forget the film Minority Report, in which society sentences people for future crimes they're predicted to commit. 

Then again, even opponents of certain uses of data agree that statistical analysis does have its place in criminal justice. And a lot of what we’re talking about here is just improving systems and access to information. It seems like a prime area for philanthropy to help, providing expertise and resources, driving transparency, and just connecting government agencies that don’t always communicate well.  

The sticky part, of course, is how it all plays out. After all, just as we’ve seen in the bonanza in K-12 education philanthropy, reform means different things to different people.