Report Calls for 'Big Bet' on Reducing Over-Criminalization

A philanthropic investment of $1 billion in efforts to reduce over-criminalization and rates of incarceration could increase lifetime earnings for low-income individuals by between $4.3 billion and $8.6 billion, a report from the Bridgespan Group finds.

The report, 'Billion Dollar Bets' to Decrease Over-Criminalization: Creating Economic Opportunity for Every American (13 pages, PDF), examines how philanthropy could help redirect funding streams from harmful punitive practices to evidence-based programs and interventions focused on prevention and rehabilitation. According to the report, mandatory sentencing laws, regressive incarceration practices, and over-escalation of policing disproportionately affects low-income communities of color. For example, an African-American man born in 2001 faces a 32 percent likelihood of spending time in prison, compared with 17 percent for a Latino male and 6 percent for a white male of the same age. African-American males who are incarcerated as juveniles also see a larger reduction in their lifetime earnings than any other demographic group, which in turn reduces the odds that African-American children — of whom one in nine has at least one incarcerated parent — will escape poverty.

The report argues that philanthropy can affect the restructuring of public funding streams needed to drive a fundamental shift in the criminal justice system by advocating for policy changes to reduce criminalization in schools and incarceration rates — especially for nonviolent crime — overall; support effective diversion programs that provide drug offenders with alternate treatment options; and facilitate the rehabilitation and reentry into society of formerly incarcerated individuals. The report further estimates that investments of $60 million in a research organization that can collect, analyze, and disseminate incarceration data; $930 million in a national grant competition to incentivize states to develop plans for reducing their rates of incarceration, recidivism, and crime; and $10 million in an independent organization that collects and analyzes data from grantee states could, over five years, produce interventions for as many as 1.5 million youths, resulting in a reduction of between 12.5 percent and 20 percent in convictions and incarceration among individuals age 19 or younger. With between 185,000 and 375,000 individuals avoiding criminal convictions and, as a consequence, seeing an average increase of $22,800 in their lifetime earnings, the $1 billion investment could generate a total of between $4.3 billion and $6.8 billion in economic benefit for affected youths and their families.

"The projected direct impact of this bet is the increased social mobility of individuals who, if not for the interventions listed here, would end up incarcerated," said Rose Martin, a Bridgespan consultant and co-author of the study. "Further impacts would be expected from additional benefits for families of these individuals, including a higher likelihood of their children completing high school and college."