One of the most hopeful trends in philanthropy right now is the rising tide of funder interest in criminal justice reform. New advocacy organizations are tapping those resources to challenge the status quo on a variety of fronts, banking on bipartisan potential for progress on an issue that bitterly divided the American public for decades.

A recent arrival to that growing ecosystem is EXiT: Executives Transforming Probation & Parole. EXiT’s objective is to organize and support officials—primarily probation and parole chiefs—who want to reduce the number of people under community supervision and reorient the system away from punitive practices and toward restorative ones. EXiT has already achieved significant buy-in from more than 60 probation and parole chiefs.

It’s not at all surprising to see Arnold Ventures head the list of EXiT’s funders. Across a number of justice reform verticals, Arnold has grown into one of the issue’s leading grantmakers. Also backing EXiT are Galaxy Gives, the philanthropic vehicle of investor and bail reform funder Michael Novogratz, and the Tikkun Olam Foundation. Between them, these funders are part of a growing push to shift institutional norms that have made the justice system costly, ineffective, and discriminatory.

Confronting Some Grim Statistics

As Arnold Ventures notes in a press release, the sheer magnitude of community supervision is startling. The U.S. prison and jail population is already bloated far beyond the level of the rest of the developed world. But there are over two times as many American adults on probation or parole than the number of adults incarcerated—a whopping 4.5 million people in total, a number that’s increased fourfold since 1980.

Black men and women are under supervision at rates over double the national average. And far from acting as acting as a reliable pathway out of incarceration, mass supervision often has the opposite effect. In 2017, 1 in 4 people entering prison did so because of non-criminal supervision violations—including reasons as trivial as missing an appointment.

According to EXiT Co-Chair Barbara Broderick, Chief Probation Officer of Arizona’s Maricopa County, fully addressing the problem will require broader systemic changes. “Probation and parole chiefs have little control over who comes in their front door—those decisions are made by other systems, at sentencing or release,” she said in a press release. “But we do control many aspects of supervision, and that gives us the power to lead the transformation we want to see.”

EXiT lays out its ideas for a better community supervision system in a vision statement calling for reductions to the system’s “footprint and punitiveness.” They include diverting individuals away from probation and parole, addressing entrenched racial disparities, setting conditions based on individuals’ offenses (rather than relying on blanket rules), eliminating fees, and doing away with re-incarceration for technical violations. It also calls for changes to statutory restrictions that hinder reentry by denying parolees voting rights, driving privileges, and access to housing and education. EXiT wants to invest the savings from a leaner supervision system into expanded community services.

While the statement doesn’t mention the for-profit corrections industry, private firms are already heavily involved in tasks like surveilling parolees. In many jurisdictions, achieving the statement’s aims will mean challenging those entrenched interests.

EXiT is based at Columbia University’s Justice Lab. In addition to convening and organizing sympathetic local officials, its action plan includes providing technical and rapid response assistance and giving testimony at hearings. A number of relevant professional associations have come out in support—the American Probation and Parole Association, the Association of Women Executives in Corrections, and the National Association of Probation Executives among them.

Rising Attention From Funders

Arnold Ventures, EXiT’s highest-profile funder, has ramped up its commitments to parole and probation reform over the past year. In the fall of 2018, Arnold Ventures (then still the Laura and John Arnold Foundation) announced its intention to fund supervision reform in a big way and worked with the Pew Charitable Trusts on a report examining the problem and potential solutions. It followed up on that earlier this year, partnering with the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance on the Reducing Revocations Challenge.

Arnold has also gotten behind the REFORM Alliance, a national justice reform advocacy organization affiliated with prominent voices from business and entertainment. The REFORM Alliance got started after rapper and co-founder Meek Mill was re-incarcerated in 2017 on a parole violation. As we’ve reported, Laura Arnold is now a REFORM Alliance partner alongside luminaries like Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, Michael Rubin, Robert Kraft, Clara Wu Tsai, and Daniel Loeb.

While Arnold Ventures has become a leading funder in this space, the role of smaller funders shouldn’t be understated. In the case of Galaxy Gives, which also backs EXiT, that means a pointed effort to shrink the justice system and “divest resources from human caging.” The philanthropist behind Galaxy Gives is Michael Novogratz, who’s using an investment fortune to back organizations like the Bail Project—a revolving fund that covers bail for defendants who can’t afford it with the ultimate aim of ending the money bail system. Novogratz is also a REFORM Alliance partner.

EXiT’s third funder, the Tikkun Olam Foundation, Inc., maintains a low profile. A variety of Jewish organizations engaged in philanthropy and social service work use the phrase “tikkun olam,” which refers in this instance to a dedication to improve the world. The Tikkun Olam Foundation’s grantmaking is centered on New York City and prioritizes progressive causes like gender justice, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ issues. In addition to EXiT, its justice reform grantees include Common Justice and Families for Justice as Healing.

Local Leaders, National Funders

Righting the justice system’s wrongs means reworking practices driven by anecdote rather than evidence, something funders like Arnold Ventures recognize all too well. The recent rollout of the Council on Criminal Justice with support from Arnold, Ford, Joyce, and others is just one example of heightened funding for research and evidence-based policy.

But reformers also need to confront the system’s deeply decentralized nature. By convening local leaders around a kinder, more restorative vision, efforts like EXiT may amplify lonely voices for reform and change the system’s culture. That’s the hope anyway. And leadership-focused strategies have prompted plenty of other grantmaking, including the Open Philanthropy Project’s support for prosecutorial reform and Arnold’s ongoing effort to uplift better models of prison operations.

All of this research and infrastructure-building is setting the groundwork for desperately-needed comprehensive reforms. In the end, though, whether those reforms materialize depends on the willingness of state and local officials—and ultimately the voting public—to insist on them.

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