Arnold's Latest Big Play: Corralling Unusual Bedfellows to Reform Criminal Justice

We'll say it again: We love watching the Laura and John Arnold Foundation do business, because whatever you may think of LJAF's ideas, this funder is always angling for the big play. And as for those ideas, they're more eclectic than some might think. While the Arnolds are often cast as part of the conservative education cabal, and John Arnold has been gunning for public pensions reform, the foundation is also friendly to some progressive causes. A case in point: criminal justice reform. The Arnolds have long pushed to create fairer, more effective policies—backing the Innocence Project, among other groups. 

Lately, though, the foundation has been thinking even bigger about ways to move the needle in this area, and to capitalize on the numbers of Americans of all political stripes who want to move away from a harsh war on crime that's a legacy of the bygone crack era of the 1990s. 

Last October, Laura Arnold, a Yale-trained lawyerconvened an unusual meeting in Washington, DC, with some groups that are normally at each other's throats, most notably the Center for American Progress, the top liberal think tank inside the Beltway, and FreedomWorks, an organization close to the Tea Party and generally to the right of the Arnold Foundation.

What came out of this meeting was a heightened awareness of how much common ground the left and right share when it comes to criminal justice reform. Libertarians see the overreach of the criminal justice system as yet one more example of government run amuck, while progressives hate how the "New Jim Crow" devastates communities of color and diverts resources away from things like education. 

These two sides have been talking to each for a while, but now this coordination will extend to their funders, according to a new effort announced yesterday. With more than $5 million in new funding coming from four funders—Ford, MacArthur, Arnold, and Koch Industries—a newly formed group, the Coalition for Public Safety, is planning to support new legislative and community initiatives that will aim to reform criminal justice and end what ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero called our "40 year addiction to incarceration." The coalition will serve as the hub for this new collaborative effort, and Christine Leonard, formerly of the Obama Administration's office on Drug Policy and Director of the Washington office of Vera Institute for Justice, will be its director. 

"Did anyone on any planet imagine these Republicans and Democrats would come together for a common cause?" asked Matt Kibbe, President and CEO of FreedomWorks, referring to the Smart Sentencing Act, one piece of successful legislation that identified key bipartisan support for criminal justice reforms that reduce sentences for drug offenses. Rand Paul and Cory Booker have teamed up on other pieces of legislation, as have Senators Whitehouse and Grassley. Organizations taking on the advocacy piece of supporting such efforts include Americans for Tax Reform—Grover Norquist's outfit—and the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

On a media conference call, representatives from these diverse organizations asserted that this group will be pushing hard from the get-go to enact best practices in criminal justice reform and take their work to a national scale. Marc Levin, CEO of Right On Crime, talked about how initiatives in Texas have resulted in huge improvements, reducing the crime rate by 22 percent since 2005, and reducing the incarceration rate by 12 percent since that time. He talked about the need to build a criminal justice system that "rewards success"—an idea very much in sync with the Arnold Foundation's work, which aims to "develop, incubate, and spread innovative approaches to criminal justice challenges."

When questioned about whether this bipartisan coalition would be short-lived, the coalition partners were quick to point out that this is a unique opportunity to get things done, and every effort would be made to stay on task and identify which pieces of legislation to support. Civil assets forfeiture is one area where the bipartisan legislative support may be strong enough to introduce legislation soon, as is the support for juvenile justice reform. The coalition, which includes groups with many state branches, will also be uniquely poised to identify which initiatives to invest in on the local level.

Supporting the roles of states and municipalities as laboratories for best practices is an area where the Arnold Foundation is already ahead of the game. The couple recently gave $4.5 million to New York City's Crime Lab, which will identify best practices in the criminal justice system to improve public safety. As Mayor de Blasio said of the initiative, "This partnership will allow us to study how interventions like algebra tutoring and extended hours at community centers can provide significant public safety returns to help our City maintain low crime and violence rates.”

In a statement about the new left-right coalition, the Arnolds said: "We strongly believe that the time is ripe for key reforms in criminal justice. There is growing momentum and consensus around a number of policy solutions."

It bears repeating that Ford, MacArthur, and Koch Industries are the other funders making the new coalition possible, and the nonprofits doing the actual work are showing real courage by going outside their comfort zones. Still, while this isn't Arnold's show, it's a good moment for the foundation, which gave away $108 million last year, and especially for Laura.

Chalk up one more reason why, last year, we named LJAF one of the "most interesting foundations, 2014," why we named Laura Arnold as one of the "most powerful women in philanthropy," and why we named John and Laura together one of the "most powerful couples in philanthropy."

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