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Two Non-profit Foundations Provide Funding, Leadership for Criminal Justice Reform

by Matt Clarke

On April 12, 2016, the MacArthur Foundation announced grants totaling nearly $25 million to support 20 jurisdictions working to create fairer and more effective systems of local law enforcement. The grants are part of the $100 million Safety and Justice Challenge Initiative, a five-year funding push to reform our nation’s criminal justice system at the local level.

Additionally, on January 23, 2017, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation announced that former White House advisors Lynn Overmann and Kelly Jin had joined the foundation to continue the work they began under the Obama administration’s Data-Driven Justice Initiative. With the Trump administration’s recent punitive change in criminal justice policy, the Arnold Foundation will use data and analytics to address reform efforts.

Although largely overlooked by the “end mass incarceration” movement, which focuses on state and federal prisons, the population of prisoners in local jails has tripled since the 1980s. There are around 11.6 million jail admissions each year in the U.S., about 20 times the number of prison admissions.

A chief focus of these reform efforts is to reduce racial disparities among jail populations. Like prison systems, local jails include disproportionately high numbers of blacks and Latinos, accounting for 51% of the jail population and 58% of prison populations, but only 30% of the general population. While nearly three-quarters of jail prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent drug, property or traffic offenses, research has shown that just a few days in jail limits future job prospects, worsens health and increases the likelihood of recidivism.

Another focus is to release people who are not a danger but remain in jail because they are too poor to pay bail. Three out of five jail prisoners are pretrial detainees who are legally presumed to be innocent; most are incarcerated because they cannot afford to make bond. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.30].

A third focus is to assist people who are frequently jailed due to mental health or substance abuse issues. Statistics cited by the Arnold Foundation indicate that 64% of people in jail suffer from mental illness, 68% have a substance abuse problem and 44% have chronic health conditions.

Proposed local solutions include exploring alternatives to arrest and incarceration, providing implicit bias training to law enforcement personnel and establishing community-based treatment programs. The jurisdictions funded by the MacArthur Foundation will emphasize community engagement and collaboration with local criminal justice officials.

The Arnold Foundation plans to keep Overmann and Jin focused on the same efforts as they were in the Obama White House – finding high-tech ways to defeat the dysfunction and lack of transparency in local criminal justice systems. Both work in the foundation’s new Data-Driven Justice Initiative.

“There has been tremendous bipartisan momentum to reform the criminal justice system, and we are pleased to continue backing state and local leaders who are pursuing data-driven approaches to improve their systems,” explained Arnold Foundation executive vice-president Kelli Rhee.

Using private tech resources like Amazon, the foundation’s new initiative aims to construct a secure, cloud-based platform where local jurisdictions share data on 911 calls, jail bookings, hospital admissions, domestic violence and arrests. The goal is to identify and help at-risk people moving through local justice and health systems, targeting them with interventions that reduce the need for expensive jail time and hospital visits.

The MacArthur Foundation grants are designed to help local governments continue pursuing evidence-based reform efforts. In Atlanta, for example, a case management data gathering system will make it easier for public defenders to hold service providers accountable for the progress of their clients. While in Delaware, a new electronic tracking system will improve the way the state handles releasing mentally ill prisoners. And San Francisco is building an online tool to pinpoint racial and ethnic disparities in its justice system.

Nearly 200 jurisdictions in 45 states and territories applied for support from the MacArthur Foundation, a number that was reduced to 20 in a competitive selection process. The foundation hopes those 20 jurisdictions will become model sites for solutions that work.

“The way we misuse and over-use jails in this country takes an enormous toll on our social fabric and undermines the credibility of government actions, with particularly dire consequences for communities of color,” said MacArthur Foundation president Julia Stasch, who added that local jurisdictions are now “leading the way on justice reform.”

Eleven jurisdictions received MacArthur Foundation grants of between $1.5 million and $3.5 million over two years to reduce their jail populations by 15 to 34 percent. Another nine jurisdictions received grants of $150,000 and access to technical expertise to continue local criminal justice reforms.

The jurisdictions receiving $1.5 million or more included Charleston County, South Carolina; Harris County, Texas; Lucas County, Ohio; Milwaukee County, Wisconsin; New Orleans, Louisiana; New York City; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Pima County, Arizona; Spokane County, Washington; the State of Connecticut; and Saint Louis County, Missouri. The nine jurisdictions that received $150,000 grants were Ada County, Idaho; Cook County, Illinois; Los Angeles County, California; Mecklenburg County, North Carolina; Mesa County, Colorado; Multnomah County, Oregon; Palm Beach County, Florida; Pennington County, South Dakota; and Shelby County, Tennessee.

The $25 million in MacArthur Foundation grants followed an initial $75 million in funding, announced in February 2015, that was awarded to cities and counties to develop initiatives “that will lead to fairer, more effective local justice systems.” [See: PLN, Jan. 2016, p.18; Nov. 2015, p.52]. 



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