Photo: Vic Hinterlang/shutterstock
Photo: Vic Hinterlang/shutterstock

It’s been a turbulent several months for criminal justice reformers. First, a pandemic highlighted the defenselessness—and massive size—of the nation’s incarcerated population. Then a nationwide reckoning on race put abuses of the justice system firmly in the public eye, changing the dialogue seemingly overnight on policing, prisons and the carceral state. As the ground shifts beneath them, the challenge before grantmakers is not only to respond to problems like COVID-19 and racist policing, but to situate those responses within larger and longer-term frameworks for change.

Arnold Ventures is a telling example. For quite a while, Laura and John Arnold’s foundation-turned-LLC has been a leader in justice reform philanthropy, applying its characteristic data-driven approach to a nest of challenges that have long been understudied and only vaguely understood. Arnold Ventures’ philanthropic adoption of the Obama administration’s Data-Driven Justice Initiative and its deep-dive research commitment on prison policy are just a few highlights.

This is a grantmaker with a solid dedication to justice reform, but it seems that, just like peers in this space such as CZI and the Ballmer Group, Arnold Ventures finds itself treading a careful course these days. After all, it’s never been a movement funder, and its police reform grantees do not include, say, places like the Movement for Black Lives. But nor is Arnold merely calling for additional body cams or more uninspired community engagement.

Back in May, Jeremy Travis, Arnold Ventures’ executive vice president of criminal justice, told us: “The pandemic really exposes the fault lines of society and reveals the ways in which the justice system puts people in harm’s way.” He went on to assert that Arnold would double down on a reform agenda as it builds out its COVID-related criminal justice funding. Top-of-mind, he said, would be to make permanent a “new normal” of fewer arrests, reduced fines and fees, and the release of vulnerable individuals.

Now, with news of 26 COVID-responsive grants that Arnold Ventures has approved in its criminal justice program area since this spring, that picture is more distinct. What’s also getting clearer is how Arnold wants to position its giving as a groundswell of anti-racist activism continues to reshape the country.

Temporary Relief or Permanent Policy?

Arnold Ventures’ COVID-related criminal justice grants total around $7.8 million, and another round of grantmaking over the next month or two may bring that figure closer to $10 million. “All of these grants are in areas where Arnold has an existing pre-COVID strategy,” Travis said in a recent interview. In response to the pandemic, he said, “We in essence challenged [existing grantees] to tell us some of the ways in which they saw opportunities to accelerate reform in their work.”

The list does include some new grantees, but on the whole, the pandemic hasn’t caused Arnold to deviate too much from its established priorities. Still, Travis says there has been a tactical shift away from a longer-term research focus toward “more of a roll-up-your sleeves policy focus” that takes its cues from practitioners responding to COVID on the ground. Researchers shouldn’t panic, though—this adjustment only seems to apply to Arnold’s COVID-related criminal justice grants. Research funding is still flowing under the funder’s wider justice reform umbrella, and includes a big $2.7 million grant to the University of California, Irvine to study prison violence across seven states.

Taken together, Arnold’s COVID-responsive criminal justice grants aim to reduce the system’s footprint in ways that benefit incarcerated people and those who work at those institutions. They’re also meant to sustain those reforms even after the pandemic subsides. Beginning on the front end, there’s a grant to the R Street Institute to promote alternatives to arrest via advocacy and outreach on the state level. There are also several grants to places like Fair and Just Prosecution, the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, and Zealous to cement COVID-era pretrial reforms to prosecution and litigation.

Speaking of litigation, Arnold is also backing places like the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Advancement Project to support the continued release of inmates vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19, including the elderly and people with medical conditions. Other grantees seek to reduce or eliminate onerous fines and fees—particularly in juvenile cases—that cities and states may well embrace with a vengeance as tax revenues shrink. Recipients include the National Consumer Law Center, the Juvenile Law Center, the Berkeley Policy Advocacy Clinic and Dream Corps.

The largest cohort of grantees is focused on prison reform, one of Arnold’s key priorities. Many of these grants reflect or build upon the goals Arnold articulated last year, including greater transparency, more effective and humane administration, better oversight, and research efforts to shed light on a largely opaque system. Approaching those questions through the lens of COVID response, some of the policy-oriented grantees include the Prison Policy Initiative, Amend, Community-Oriented Correctional Health Services, and Youth First.

Among others, research funds went to the University of California, Los Angeles to track the spread of COVID among the incarcerated population, and to the University of Minnesota’s Robina Institute to continue studying institutional decision-making around prisoner release and time served. Several “technical assistance” grants also went out to efforts in particular states to release incarcerated people and support their reentry into society.

Rounding out the list are grants to the Council of State Governments and to Executives Transforming Probation and Parole (EXiT) to reform probation and parole in light of COVID-19, as well as backing for the Council on Criminal Justice’s National Commission on COVID and Criminal Justice. Co-chaired by former U.S. Attorneys General Loretta Lynch and Alberto Gonzales, the commission’s goal is to study how the pandemic has affected the justice system and develop policy safeguards to “better balance public health and public safety.” The MacArthur Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and Microsoft are also among the commission’s funders.

“A Moment Has Found Us”

Like other leading funders of a justice reform movement that was already gaining steam before 2020, Arnold Ventures has long been attuned to the system’s deep racial inequity. The above grants certainly have racial justice implications—most justice reform efforts do—but their primary lens is COVID-19, not race. When I asked Travis how the reinvigorated racial justice movement has affected Arnold’s work, he quoted a colleague, saying, “A moment has found us.” That colleague, Walter Katz, is Arnold’s new vice president of criminal justice, who arrived at Arnold Ventures this year following a stint in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration.

Katz’s initial role at Arnold involves heading up the funder’s work on policing, an issue that was thrust into extreme relevance following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police. In an Arnold Ventures blog post from July, Katz summed up the Arnold position: “We do recognize that in some ways, a moment has found us. What we’re focused on is reducing the footprint of law enforcement—reducing the scope of things that police respond to, especially when there are community- and social-service-driven interventions that have better outcomes.”

If reducing the footprint of the law is the overall goal here, both Arnold’s COVID response grants and its larger criminal justice portfolio actually match up quite well with what movement leaders want. Arnold may not be pushing to defund the police, but like other philanthropic justice reformers, Travis and Katz appear to want to dial back the system’s massive growth over the past half-century.

“We don’t use the same language a protest movement might, but there’s a lot of alignment on analysis of the problem,” Travis said. “George Floyd’s murder and the protests in the street give us new urgency to continue our work, and to look at this as a matter of deep introspection.”

One Arnold-funded effort in particular speaks to that need. It’s called the Square One Project, a three-year initiative to generate ideas about what a system for public safety would look like it it were designed from scratch with racial equity and poverty alleviation in mind. Travis co-founded the project alongside Columbia University’s Bruce Western, and it receives funding from Arnold Ventures, Galaxy Gives, MacArthur’s Safety and Justice Challenge, and the Joyce Foundation. The project doesn’t have a very high profile, but its mission is a lot more resonant this year. We can expect Arnold either to continue funding that work, or perhaps fund something similar in partnership with other grantmakers.

More to Come

In terms of more immediate reforms, Arnold has its eye on driving home the changes COVID has prompted to prosecutorial practices. Travis spoke of a coming wave of prosecution reform founded on data and transparency. One big Arnold commitment in that space is a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania and CZI to embed researchers in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. The idea is to get researchers inside institutions that are typically shut off from outside scrutiny—definitely a theme with Arnold’s justice reform grants. Arnold is providing $3.5 million for the project, with CZI chipping in another $3.5 million.

Going forward, we may also see more incisive funding for police reform. Arnold has actually done quite a bit over the years to study the effectiveness of body cams and boost other attempts to reform the system from within. While that support remains, Katz has spoken in favor of bolder strategies. In a dialogue recorded shortly after George Floyd’s killing, he said, “So what people are saying is that, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve had de-escalation training, we’ve had implicit bias training, we’ve had community engagement, and we’re still here.’ And so there’s recognition that there’s systemic barriers, which are keeping reform from truly taking hold.”

Katz goes on to list those barriers, and they track well with what movement leaders have cited. They include qualified immunity, the power of police unions, the lack of transparency that comes with “peace officer bill of rights” legislation, and the ability of officers flagged for misconduct to switch departments with impunity. It’s not clear exactly if, when, or in what form Arnold advocacy for changes to those policies will materialize. But based on Travis’ comments, it may be in the works. And if it does appear, it’s likely going to focus on the state level.

In the meantime, reducing the system’s footprint, studying it, and safeguarding it from COVID appears to be the name of the game. A final thought: Those priorities can still be couched as bipartisan, an identity both Arnold Ventures and the criminal justice reform movement itself have embraced. Advocating for systemic reforms to policing, as necessary as that may be, is a bolder and more controversial step to take. The thing is, can justice reformers afford not to take it?

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