As the Odds Improve, MacArthur and Other Funders Step Up Fight for Criminal Justice Reform

Funders have been banging their head against a wall over criminal justice for yearsworking against harsh practices that defy social science research, not to mention common sense. 

Now, that blood-stained wall is finally starting to crack, as policy leaders and the public alike wake up to the negative consequences of entangling so many Americans in the criminal justice system. With the wind finally blowing in the right direction, some foundations are stepping up efforts to make change. 

A case in point is the MacArthur Foundation's commitment of up to $75 million over the next five years to reform how U.S. jails operate, the biggest new criminal justice initiative of any foundation in years. MacArthur wants to find ways to reduce needless jail stays and get more people on the road to productive lives before they get caught up in the prison system long-term.

This strikes us as opportunistic funding of the best kind: Look for places where your side has momentum and then push harder, with the biggest grantmaking budget you can swing. 

MacArthur will choose up to 20 jurisdictions across the nation for $150,000 in grant money and a seven-month planning consultation that will run from May to December of 2015. Ten of those 20 chosen initiatives will go on to a second round of fundingup to $2 million a yearto help bring their plans to scale. Dubbed the Safety and Justice Challenge, applications for grant money from this new initiative opened on February 11 and close on March 31.

There is a strong focus here on where this money is goingtoward jails, not prisons. What's the difference? Jails are where you go when you are awaiting trial. Due to overcrowding, noise, and chaos, jails tend to be some of the most anti-social environments in the justice system. And yet, many of the people housed in jails do not pose a significant threat to public safety, and therefore don't really need to be there.

As a new report from the Vera Institute notes, "nearly 75 percent of the population of both sentenced offenders and pretrial detainees are in jail for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses." Too poor to post bail and frequently suffering from mental illness and substance abuse problems, the people housed in jails, who may not even be guilty, often spend months just waiting for trial. Clearly, that's a situation that needs to change. 

MacArthur is seeking to intervene in jails because they are one of the last possible points of intervention before a person becomes fully inducted into the prison system. If you can post bail while you are awaiting trial in jail, or the public defender can come up with a good argument for your release, you might still get out before too much serious damage is done. Another way to thin out the jail population: work to release repeat offenders who are picked up on probation violations or other nonviolent charges. These folks could be re-routed from jail to programs and other community-based settings, reducing rates of recidivism and the overall prison population.

The Safety and Justice Challenge will support cities and counties across the nation looking to intervene at this critical point. The initiative aims to fund projects within the justice system that treat people more fairly, improve public safety, save taxpayer money, and lead to better social outcomes. Programs that work to release nonviolent offenders on recognizance rather than money bail are one area that MacArthur might be looking to fund, since these programs have proven effective in Colorado. MacArthur will also be funding initiatives that find ways to divert low-risk people from jail and reduce the number of days a person is held in jail before seeing a judge, among other possibilities.

The MacArthur Foundation has been active in the justice field for more than two decades. With a primary focus on juvenile justice, the foundation has supported reform in more than 35 states. Now, with the Safety and Justice Challenge, MacArthur will be broadening its work. Policy and advocacy leaders in the criminal justice field including the Center for Court Innovation, the Justice Management Institute, Justice System Partners, and the Vera Institute of Justice, will provide technical assistance and council to the chosen initiatives.

MacArthur is not the only foundation kicking it up a notch recently on criminal justice reform. The Soros Foundation recently put down $50 million to help the ACLU fight high rates of incarceration. Annie E. Casey is another operator in this space, primarily on the juvenile side. Then there is the Public Welfare Foundation which gives out several six-figure grants a year, and which supports programs like the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending in Michigan. The Ford Foundation also supports efforts in this space, such as its recent $250,000 grant to the Innocence Project "to prevent wrongful incarceration and improve the fairness of the criminal justice system," and even Google is getting into the game with a grant last July of $500,000 to help formerly incarcerated people in Oakland and San Jose find jobs. A number of big individual donors are also putting up funds, particularly through support of the ACLU and the Innocence Project. 

Legislators are also making a push this year to coordinate prison reform efforts nationally. Senators Whitehouse and Cronyn have introduced bipartisan legislation that will work toward reforming the prison system and providing better options for re-entry. At the same time, a plan for overhaul of the Juvenile Justice laws is also in the works for this year.

Laurie Garduque, director of the Justice Reform program at MacArthur, observed that we are witnessing a "a huge sea change" in the movement to reduce incarceration.

It's about time, too. With funding for the social sector at a standstill, we need to find ways to shave costs down, and prisons are proving to be one of the most costly and wasteful social services government provides.