Achieving Real Justice: Funding Criminal Justice Reform

Achieving Real Justice: Funding Criminal Justice Reform

An ambitious, multiyear plan to reduce the number of women behind bars.

A major push to expand job opportunities for Californians with past convictions by advocating with major businesses and state government to change hiring practices and combat employment discrimination.

An initiative to change the odds for children by preventing childhood exposure to violence and creating a seamless web of support and treatment to help child victims of violence heal and rebuild their lives.

These are just some of the innovative strategies being carried out by public agencies and local and national organizations to address one of California's biggest challenges a broken criminal justice system.

As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, there is no question that the Golden State's approach to keeping our communities safe desperately needs new thinking. In fact, fueled by decades of so-called "tough on crime" policies that have handcuffed politicians since the 1970s, it is woefully out of touch.

The result? The state has the largest prison population in the country, with more than 170,000 people behind bars. Eleven percent of the state budget goes to the prison system, yet California has the highest recidivism rate in the country; indeed, two-thirds of people released from prison in California are back behind bars within three years. Meanwhile, to balance a budget crippled by massive corrections expenditures lawmakers have long been forced to slash funds for education and crucial social services.

The problem is not confined to California. As a country, we spend $212 billion annually on the criminal justice system. Americans comprise five percent of the world's population, but we have 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Nearly 2.4 million Americans are locked up in jails and prisons across the country, most for nonviolent offenses, and an enormously disproportionate number are poor and people of color. And there are now 2.7 million children with an incarcerated mother or father, a number that has quadrupled over the past 25 years. As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to take up the issue of California's overcrowded prison system, it is clear that a fear-driven approach to criminal justice and public safety has taken a real toll on communities across the Golden State and the country.

Despite the formidable challenges, there are many successful, proven innovations in this arena, and there are opportunities for real criminal justice reform on the horizon and for California to lead the way nationally. California voters just elected a new governor and attorney general, both of whom take office as criminal justice reformers. In January, as part of his proposed budget, Governor Jerry Brown called for the elimination of the youth prison system and for low-level offenders to be housed in county run jails instead of the state's prisons. Attorney General Kamala Harris has helped build a robust policy architecture around how to be "smart on crime," which in turn has emerged as a rallying slogan for reformers around the country.

Philanthropy has a major role to play in these efforts. Those of us in the field know that we cannot turn things around nationally or in California without the help of the dedicated advocates and organizations on the frontlines of criminal justice reform. These organizations are working hard every day to attack the issue from multiple angles from urging government officials to enact specific policy reforms, to providing direct services and a second chance at life to individuals who are reentering society from prison and jail, to changing the hearts and minds of citizens about the best ways to secure public safety. Yet these organizations and advocates cannot achieve lasting and comprehensive success in this area without significant investment and support from foundations and individual philanthropists.

While criminal justice is an area that has been chronically under-resourced in the past, there are signs of increased interest among funders. The Rosenberg Foundation is part of a newly formed national Criminal Justice Funders Network that counts a growing number of funders among its members, including Open Society Foundations, Ford Foundation, Public Welfare Foundation, California Endowment, Fund for Nonviolence, Omnia Foundation, and Women's Foundation of California.

We partnered in 2009 with the U.S. Department of Justice to convene a major meeting of national criminal justice funders at which more than 80 funders participated in strategic discussions with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and top staff from the Justice Department to identify priorities and areas of potential public/private cooperation. And in 2010, the Justice Department convened a group of funders focused on Reentry and Justice Reinvestment, two of the priority areas identified at the earlier meeting.

But more needs to be done. Because targeted investments by grantmakers in criminal justice reform can alleviate other, often-connected problems, we need to highlight the intersections between criminal justice policy and critical social justice issues such as racial inequality, education, community revitalization, child and family well-being, poverty, housing, and employment and workforce development.

In addition to investing dollars, funders have an unmatched ability to bring together both likely and unlikely allies not just reform advocates, but also businesses and community leaders, law enforcement, policy makers, and others ensuring that we move beyond issue silos to find common ground, share resources and ideas, and focus collectively on the task at hand.

In terms of facilitating knowledge sharing, funders also can identify and commission research and data on best practices and successes, and help disseminate that knowledge to a broad national audience.

Finally, funders can help to open doors for advocates by making sure that, in discussions and work with public and private partners, organizations and leaders on the frontlines always have a seat at the table.

There are myriad examples of innovative strategies from states and localities across the country that have taken up criminal justice reform, addressing both front-end alternatives to incarceration as well as successful reentry for those returning to their communities from prison and jail. We in philanthropy have the opportunity to lead the way in establishing these strategies as successes that can be replicated and built upon so that they become lasting solutions. It is the only way to achieve real justice and safety for our communities.

Timothy P. Silard is president of the San Francisco-based Rosenberg Foundation, the largest California-based private funder of criminal justice policy reform advocacy. He was recently appointed co-chair of the Recidivism Reduction & Reentry committee of the new California Attorney General's Smart on Crime transition leadership team.