With Momentum Building, a Foundation Zeroes in on Criminal Justice Reform



These are hopeful times for criminal justice reform, with progress coming at both the federal and state levels. Late 2018 saw Congress pass the First Step Act with bipartisan support, while California, New Jersey and other states have enacted important changes related to pretrial justice and sentencing practices. In philanthropy, the issue has attracted rising interest from major funders, including the MacArthur Foundation, Arnold Ventures (formerly the Laura and John Arnold Foundation), the Open Philanthropy Project, and the Charles Koch Foundation. Much of the funding in this space is focused on advancing local reform, which is key to changing a highly decentralized criminal justice system and where there are expanding opportunities for progress.

The new momentum here is especially encouraging for social justice funders that have long worked on criminal justice issues against powerful headwinds. The Public Welfare Foundation is a case in point. Founded in 1947 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., Public Welfare has funded justice work consistently for many years as part of a broader agenda that has also encompassed support for workers’ rights and civil legal aid. Now, excited by a shifting political landscape, the foundation plans to focus more deeply on criminal and youth justice, transitioning away from workers’ rights and civil legal aid.

That decision came after a half-year of strategic planning by Public Welfare, which has assets of around $500 million, and gives away roughly $20 million a year in grants. According to President and CEO Candice Jones, the strategy shift reflects a “moment in history where we can make some substantive change in the near term.” Given the foundation’s size, she told me, “it made sense to focus our strategies in a way that the foundation’s investments spoke back to each other, rather than to distinct issues.”

Jones is fairly new to Public Welfare, having taken the reins in 2017. Around that time, she said, the board had already shown an appetite for increased focus on justice reform. That may have affected their choice of leader: Jones has a substantial anti-violence and justice reform background, including roles at the MacArthur Foundation and Chicago CRED, directorship of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, and a White House fellowship advocating educational reform for youth in correctional facilities. 

The last time Public Welfare undertook a strategic planning process was a decade ago, Jones said. “Organizations making change have to pay attention to the world. After a decade, the world had changed.”

Justice Reform Starts Locally

The foundation’s strategy shift won’t take effect all at once. Instead, Public Welfare is aiming for a staggered ramp-up of its justice reform grantmaking, with an initial focus on local work in D.C. itself. The plan is to meet with existing partners in the capital and “resource them to create an environment where more of those people are engaged in a sustainable way,” Jones said. She cited several reasons why D.C. makes sense as a beachhead for the foundation’s next phase, besides the fact that it’s based there. The district’s criminal justice reform policies “aren’t as forward-thinking as they could be,” some neighborhoods are struggling with violence, and there aren’t many other foundations backing local justice reform work. 

Focusing closer to home could mean shifts in what kinds of criminal justice groups Public Welfare supports. Its most recent set of grantees in this space includes D.C.-based organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Justice Policy Institute, the National Juvenile Justice Network, and even National Public Radio. But much of the work of these groups is focused in other states—Michigan, Texas, Oregon and New Jersey are key spots right now. It’ll be interesting to see who receives support as Public Welfare’s focus shifts to the neighborhoods of Washington, D.C.

Jones says that in addition to policy advocacy, the foundation wants to support local demonstration projects in which formerly incarcerated people receive training as social outreach workers to better understand and connect with at-risk individuals. Jones is also interested in leadership development and better local data collection, a popular strategy among criminal justice funders.

Jones’ hope is that as the updated strategy gets into swing, Public Welfare’s D.C. funding can act as a springboard for expansion into additional jurisdictions. No official announcements have yet been made. In the meantime, she also told me that formal grantmaking partnerships with other local D.C. funders are a “big possibility in the near term,” although none have been announced. Toward that end, Public Welfare is looking for a local foundation to share space with its staff in the building it purchased and renovated 20 years ago.

A Gentle Phase-out

Public Welfare may be wise to concentrate all its eggs in the justice reform basket, especially given this issue’s current momentum. Nevertheless, by turning away from workers’ rights, the foundation departs a select club: the relatively few medium- and large-sized funders supporting new labor movement organizations. Legacy foundations like Public Welfare play a critical role in backing labor advocacy, an issue that living donors with ties to business tend to avoid.

The good news is that Public Welfare is not as indispensable in this space as it once was. Amid growing concerns about income inequality, the issue of worker rights has drawn new attention from institutional grantmakers like the Irvine Foundation, and even from some living donors like Pierre Omidyar and Nick Hanauer. In recent years, grantees in Public Welfare’s workers’ rights portfolio, like the Center for Popular Democracy and the National Employment Law Project, have received decent support from other corners. All that said, the labor movement remains underfunded.

Related: In Solidarity: Here Are the Top Funders Supporting Labor and Workers' Rights

Jones was careful to note that Public Welfare’s strategy shift doesn’t signal an immediate end to its prior grantmaking. Support to current grantees in workers’ rights and civil legal aid will continue through 2020, and the foundation makes a number of “special opportunity” and discretionary grants—largely aligned with justice reform goals or rapid response—that will likely remain on the table. 

Beginning in September 2018, Jones and the foundation team “spent the fall calling grantees that would be adversely impacted [by the shift]. We’re giving multi-year transitions to our partners, and giving them early notice.” General operating support already makes up a portion of Public Welfare’s giving, but it’ll comprise all grants through 2020 to organizations affected by the phase-out. The workers’ rights portfolio will retain its staff through the transition as it works on a capstone project, which Jones described as “something generative to the field” that tells the story of Public Welfare’s grantmaking. 

It’s hard to fault the Public Welfare Foundation for wanting to lend its full resources to a cause that’s getting traction right now. Funder approaches to justice reform are already diverse, and there’s every reason to believe Public Welfare’s place-based funding strategy will cultivate some compelling work. 

Throughout our conversation, narrative and vision emerged as important concerns for Jones. It’s partially on funders, she said, to make the case that alternatives to mass incarceration aren’t “soft, squishy things to be dismissed, but a better way to maintain safety.” Jones spoke of the need for youth programming that resists law enforcement’s tendency to “adultify” young people, particularly young men of color. “We need to try to be forward-looking about justice reform,” she said. “A lot of the messaging has been around what we don’t want to see. We need to help the world envision what we do want to see.”