George Floyd memorial site in Minneapolis in 2020. Photo: Steve Skjold/shutterstock

If confirmed, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will be the first former public defender to serve on the Supreme Court. That fact is remarkable, considering just how many people each day are impacted by our criminal legal system.

Here are some sobering trends that are uniquely American: There are more than 2 million people incarcerated across the nation, including those in local jails, where the majority of people detained have not been convicted of a crime. That represents a 500% increase over the past 40 years, according to the Sentencing Project. In fact, our incarceration rates are almost twice as high as Russia’s, and are the highest in the world. Approximately 77 million Americans, or 1 in every 3 adults, have a criminal record.

Consider, too, the ripples reaching beyond those directly impacted—the children, partners, families and communities. And think of the nation’s economy, given that our labor and housing markets are built to exclude people with criminal records.

The urgency could not be clearer. Philanthropists, those with both the resources and the inclination to seek social change, must step up.

Large-scale criminal justice philanthropy, practiced by funders who prioritize these issues in a similar way as housing or education funders focus their giving, has come into prominence only in the past five or six years. Its relative infancy means that many nonprofit organizations, especially those headed by leaders of color, are still very under-resourced. In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, our analysis finds that funding for criminal justice reform amounted to just $343 million. Compare that to the $2.2 billion bail bonds industry, just one slice of the system that has a strong interest in the status quo.

In our examination of the ecosystem of organizations seeking transformative change of the criminal legal system, this chronic underfunding is not felt evenly across the nation. The funding gaps are biggest across the South and Midwest, where philanthropic resources are lower and criminal justice challenges more daunting.

Overall, less than 7% of $76.5 billion donated by national foundations in 2019 was directed to the Southeast. This pattern exists despite the fact that eight out of the 10 states with the highest incarceration rates are in the South. Despite this, foundations in the Southeast direct relatively little funding to issues of criminal justice reform and populations impacted by incarceration, according to an analysis of Candid data by Philanthropy Southeast. All the receipts for 2019 are still not in, but so far, organizations focused on incarcerated people received $22 million, one of the lowest amounts of giving in the South for any population and consistent with the pattern from previous years.

In the Midwest, the trends are similar. Philanthropic giving lags, especially on issues related to the criminal legal system, despite a dramatic increase in incarceration in the region over the past 40 years. Racial disparities are especially stark: Four of the 10 states with the highest Black-white differential in incarceration are in the Midwest. Latinx and Indigenous people are two times more likely to be incarcerated than white people in many Midwestern states, and three Midwestern states, including Minnesota, imprison Black people at more than 10 times the rate of white people. In Minneapolis, there was a surge in commitments from national funders immediately following the police murder of George Floyd, but some of those pledges have yet to materialize, funding was not distributed strategically across the ecosystem, and it is still too early to know if interest will be sustained.

There’s a movement afoot to reimagine criminal justice, and we are not the first to say: Money matters for movements. While philanthropic funding isn’t the spark that ignites movements—people will come together and fight for a better life on their own regardless—it is the fuel that gives movements lasting power, can propel them to the next level to achieve transformative success, and sustain them against powerful opposition. Indeed, without the resources to defend past victories, criminal justice reform could end up worse off than where it started.

Additionally, the work of criminal justice reform is broader than just reducing incarceration. (Remember the ripples?) It is deeply intertwined with many other issues communities and funders care about, including education, access to housing, employment, economic mobility, health and mental illness, and even climate change. Because of this connectivity, those working on issues funders might label as “criminal justice” often do not see themselves siloed that way. Instead, they see their work as focused on upending a status quo that jeopardizes our collective humanity, and part of larger efforts to build an equitable and just society.

And all 50 states matter in the fight.

Allana Jackson is a partner at The Bridgespan Group, based in Boston. Alexandra Williams is a manager at The Bridgespan Group. They are co-authors of the report Making the Case: Philanthropy’s Role in the Movement to Reimagine Criminal Justice.

Share