Photo: Tricky_Shark/shutterstock

Photo: Tricky_Shark/shutterstock

Like perhaps no other event in living memory, the COVID-19 crisis has cast into stark relief the fragilities and inequities that plague American society. Consequences for health and economic well-being follow familiar fault lines: race, income, age, geography. And while those lines often intersect, there are few places where they come together quite as forcefully as in the criminal justice system. 

When the full weight of the crisis began to hit home in late March, Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation co-authored a letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo calling for the release of as many people as possible from the state’s correctional facilities. “There is no good reason to keep putting residents, as well as police and correctional officers, at risk—or to turn a parole violation into a death sentence,” one section read. And later, “We must protect public safety. But today, there is no greater threat to public safety than the coronavirus.”

As of early May, advocates’ calls to curb mass incarceration in the name of public health have been successful, to a degree. Thousands upon thousands of people have regained their freedom from jails and prisons in jurisdictions across the country, fewer arrestees are entering the system, and measures are being taken to reduce unnecessary face-to-face contact while administering probation and parole. Those decisions are largely for local officials to make, but there’s a great deal that philanthropic funders have done—and can continue to do—to address the threat COVID-19 poses to incarcerated people, and by extension, the public at large.

Similar to the way criminal justice reform draws supporters from across the political spectrum, this corner of philanthropy is populated by a wide array of backers. The heightened response during COVID-19 has involved collaboration among longtime institutional funders, the formation of new joint funds, and some high-profile entrants to the field. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently announced a donation of $10 million to REFORM Alliance, a group run by Van Jones, with recording artists Jay-Z and Meek Mill as two of its founding partners.

Just as we’ve seen in so many issue areas, funders are weighing rapid response with the need and opportunity to push for wider systemic change. Going forward, those possibilities will be on the minds of justice reform funders as they grapple with a system that has, in fact, proved itself capable of swift revision.

Poised for Reform

Momentum for criminal justice reform was already rising before COVID-19 hit. Though there’s long been a scarcity of justice reform funding, the situation has improved. New donors are joining a growing cast of foundations interested in changing a system that’s often unjust, always expensive, and usually inefficient at delivering the good it’s meant to provide: public safety. Justice reform has enjoyed celebrity endorsements and some bipartisan support, a rare luxury. Funders have also backed research and data collection to make sense of a system in which a high degree of decentralization can mask negligence and discrimination. 

Several areas of promise have emerged, each with their dedicated cohort of funders. There’s the movement to reform and ultimately end cash bail on the grounds that it needlessly harms those whose only proven crime is their poverty. There’s mounting attention to the disproportionate number of black and brown men needlessly locked by parole and probation into a system of costly supervision. Not to mention the needless harshness of penal practices and undue prosecutorial severity for minor crimes.

The lack of sense behind many justice system norms has been a frequent theme for reformers, and those arguments only gain strength with stories of seniors succumbing in prison, parole violations effectively amounting to death sentences, or prison staff bringing the infection back to their families. 

“The pandemic really exposes the fault lines of society and reveals the ways in which the justice system puts people in harm’s way,” said Jeremy Travis, executive vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, one of the most active funders in this field.

At the MacArthur Foundation, Director of Criminal Justice Laurie Garduque also pointed to increased potential for a broad rethink. “This crisis has forced cities and counties to deeply reconsider who should be arrested and who should be kept in jail while they await trial.”

Coordination and Collaboration

Ford, Arnold and MacArthur are just a few of the regular justice reform givers. Among that growing group, there has been some coordination in the face of COVID-19. Funders have also moved money to a number of rapid-response strategies aimed at getting people out of jails and prisons, ensuring their responsible reentry and keeping those left inside as safe as possible. 

An informal affinity group known as the Criminal Justice Funder Forum is one nexus for coordination among foundations. The group got its start about three years ago and encompasses around 20 foundations that have given more than $5 million apiece toward reform efforts. The Ford Foundation, as well as George Pavlov, who directs philanthropic giving through the Sergey Brin Family Foundation, helped bring it into existence.

Beginning in March 2020, the forum organized a series of calls to coordinate a COVID-19 funding response. According to Tanya Coke, director of gender, racial and ethnic justice at Ford, the forum represented one of the “first major opportunities to align funding, and a good test of the value of an affinity group.” In the calls, she said, the funders committed to sharing proposals and being as transparent as possible about where money is going, to spur due diligence, and avoid underfunding crucial areas of need. 

The forum has identified several priorities for COVID-responsive grantmaking, including advocacy for decarceration; advocacy on behalf of justice-impacted populations in the federal stimulus packages, and supporting rent assistance and other forms of relief for families affected by mass incarceration. 

In terms of advocacy, most major criminal justice funders have already taken steps like signing letters to public officials and renewing or strengthening commitments to the policy nonprofits they’re already supporting. The Prison Policy Initiative, which has become a go-to hub for data on mass incarceration in the United States, is one destination for that money. So are movement support organizations like the Justice Collaborative, a fiscally sponsored project of Tides that provides expert assistance to activists seeking “to end dehumanization and extreme vulnerability.” 

Coke also pointed to philanthropic collaborations like the Justice and Mobility Fund, hosted by Blue Meridian with support from Ford and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Created to address challenges that involvement in the justice system pose to economic mobility, the fund is assembling a $28 million initiative to assist people who’ve been released during COVID-19. Implemented through the Center for Employment Opportunities, the effort aims to provide three months of cash relief to over 8,000 recently released people, as well as assistance in locating work and filing for any aid to which they might be entitled under federal stimulus laws. 

The funders involved want to secure commitments from the public sector—this means advocacy as well as fundraising. “The idea here is that the Center for Employment Opportunities is directly engaging with governors and city officials to encourage them to make releases, and also hoping those governments will offer money,” Coke said. Around half of the hoped-for amount has already been pledged, including $1.5 million from Art for Justice donor Agnes Gund and $5 million from “another large funder.”

Backing Direct Interventions

In addition to the Criminal Justice Funder Forum’s advocacy and economic strategies, funders have also gotten behind some direct interventions to make the justice system safer. Perhaps the simplest of all is purchasing personal protective equipment and delivering it to jails and prisons. That’s one COVID-era focus of the REFORM Alliance, a justice reform group led by media personality and nonprofit leader Van Jones, and backed by high-profile figures like recording artists Meek Mill and Jay-Z, and philanthropists like Michael Rubin, Laura Arnold, Robert Smith and Michael Novogratz. 

Founded to address problems with parole and probation, REFORM sent over 200,000 face masks to Rikers Island, the Louisiana Department of Corrections, and other jurisdictions as COVID-19 began carving its way through incarcerated populations. As noted above, the group’s PPE campaign just got a major boost from Twitter tycoon Jack Dorsey, who donated $10 million through his newly-minted $1 billion COVID-19 relief initiative. The money will let REFORM purchase and deliver more than 10 million masks and other PPE to prisons in 50 states, according to a statement.

Big donors and traditional foundations alike have also increased their support for bail funds—vehicles that pay the bail of defendants who lack the means to do so themselves, both as a form of direct aid and to highlight the bail system’s inequity. Various local bail funds exist throughout the country, but one national hub for that work is The Bail Project. Founded several years ago with support from Richard Branson, Mike Novogratz, the Audacious Project and others, the organization operates a national revolving fund that operates throughout the U.S. 

According to CEO Robin Steinberg, donors big and small have poured in to support The Bail Project since COVID-19 hit. “Since March 15th, we’ve had nearly 2,000 new first-time donors—a combination of online donations, high net worth individual donors and foundation support—who want to contribute to our national revolving bail fund,” she told me. They include national foundations like the David Rockefeller Fund, family foundations like the Chicago-based David and Pamela Waud Family Foundation, and local funders like the St. Louis Community Foundation and the Community Foundation of Louisville. 

Another new donor to The Bail Project is Chris Larsen, the billionaire angel investor who founded Ripple Labs. Apparently Larsen contracted the coronavirus himself and has since recovered. That prompts the question: to what degree will personal experience with the disease, among themselves and their families, affect high net-worth individuals’ giving down the line? 

Of course, Larsen’s donation may also have something to do with another figure from the cryptocurrency world, Mike Novogratz. The bitcoin investor provided a good chunk of The Bail Project’s early cash, and he still chairs the board. Novogratz funds a wide variety of justice reform efforts through a vehicle called Galaxy Gives. He has also spoken of actively evangelizing for justice reform among potential wealthy donors, a cause that may be gaining traction if the REFORM Alliance is any indication (Novogratz is also a part of that). 

Novogratz has taken a number of actions to fund the field during COVID-19, including by doubling down on support for The Bail Project and REFORM, backing the Justice Collaborative, supporting decarceration advocacy by public defenders and making the case against mass incarceration via the Prison Policy Initiative. Galaxy Gives is also involved in the Goodnation Covid-19 Criminal Justice Fund, a systems-oriented fundraising effort conceived by donor advisors from funders like Open Philanthropy, the Heising Simons Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and FWD.us.

Sustaining the “New Normal”

Steinberg spoke of her organization as “an emergency response to an emergency situation” that existed long before COVID-19: the mass incarceration of people who haven’t even been tried. But at the same time, she said, this is a time to “rethink why we had so many people in jail in the first place. I hope that when all is said and done, we don’t allow our systems to continue responding to issues of poverty and public health with the blunt instrument of jails.”

The prospect of making permanent some of these temporary moves toward decarceration is on plenty of funders’ minds. Inevitably, the priority has begun to shift from rapid response to long-term advocacy as moving people out of COVID-ridden jails becomes less palatable. “We’ve been assuming that the immediate opportunity around decarceration is time-limited. People will fear infecting people on the outside,” Ford’s Coke said. Justice reform efforts will continue to evolve over the next few months as more funders bring updated strategies online. 

For the MacArthur Foundation, the path forward will involve finding ways to study and talk about successful jail reductions across its Safety and Justice Challenge sites. “Many of the strategies the Safety and Justice Challenge put in place before COVID-19 have helped expedite release decisions,” Garduque said. Since February, MacArthur has seen jail reductions in some Safety and Justice Challenge counties as high as 43% (Spokane, Washington) and 40% (San Francisco, California). 

Garduque attributes the reductions to many factors—the early release of eligible people, fewer arrests, fewer prosecutors seeking bail, and the elimination of arrests for technical violations of probation and parole. "Each of these decisions are communicating to the public that the jail is not open for business as usual. It is also proof that the criminal justice system, which has historically been resistant to change, can be reformed quite quickly,” she said.

Jeremy Travis of Arnold Ventures echoed some of those views, stating that Arnold’s portfolio “will double down on opportunities to accelerate the reform agenda” amid a conversation that is shifting to “what have we learned from this, and how we can think differently about core issues facing the criminal justice paradigm.” Making the new normal permanent will be top-of-mind as Arnold maps out its plans for justice reform funding over the next few months, Travis said.

At Ford, Tanya Coke is “optimistic that decarceration efforts will allow us to look at this problem and ask ourselves why we incarcerated so many people to begin with.” But at the same time, she cautioned that systems have a tendency to revert to the status quo without continual vigilance. 

More to Come

It’ll be hard for advocates to guard against backsliding across so many small jurisdictions. But justice reformers have built-in advantages right now. One is the perception of unified local fronts made up of police, policymakers, prosecutors, advocates and others, often at odds, who’ve come together in crisis. Playing into that is justice reform’s continued bipartisan appeal. As Coke pointed out, state and local budgets face massive shortfalls, and the cost argument has a way of reconciling those who might not see eye-to-eye on the finer points of social justice. 

Going forward, we’re likely to see more funders roll out major updates to their justice reform portfolios. Open Philanthropy is one big justice reform grantmaker with a new strategy in the works, one that criminal justice lead Chloe Cockburn expects to debut in the next few months. Another place to watch is Stand Together, the primary giving instrument of frequent justice reform funder Charles Koch

The environment for justice reform will change and evolve quickly in the wake of COVID-19, and not always for the better. But it’s hard to deny that the pandemic has already altered the national conversation around public well-being. Perhaps the fields of public health and public safety will grow more aligned as stakeholders recognize the value of a more restorative approach to criminal justice. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Travis of Arnold Ventures. “The justice system is operating in a different way.”

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