Supporting Local Criminal Justice Reform in a Time of Crisis


Featured Jurisdictions Interagency Collaboration Jail Populations October 27, 2016

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has embarked on a new program of investment in local criminal justice reform at a crucial time in American history. The primary institutions of local justice—police, courts, and jails—have recently come under unprecedented scrutiny, as the nation’s attention has been riveted by a series of tragedies in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, Louisiana, Minnesota, Dallas, Milwaukee, and elsewhere. This is the challenging environment in which the work of the Safety and Justice Challenge has begun.

That work is predicated on the belief that our nation relies excessively on incarceration as a response to crime and social disorder, and that the problem must be tackled first in the jails that anchor local systems of justice. With more than 11 million annual admissions, America’s jails have devastating impacts on individuals, families, neighborhoods, and our society as a whole. The effects are especially toxic and divisive in communities of color, which suffer disproportionately from the damaging consequences of overuse and misuse of jails. National leadership is needed to focus the energies of the field on developing, demonstrating and spreading more balanced approaches that reflect a fair, just, and equitable system of justice.

From the outset we have been surprised and gratified by the field’s embrace of the Safety and Justice Challenge. When the Challenge was first announced in the fall of 2014, a total of 191 jurisdictions spanning 45 states and accounting for roughly one-third of the nation’s total jail capacity, sought to participate. We chose 20 applicant sites to support through a data analysis and collaborative planning process, designed to yield actionable plans for safely reducing local jail incarceration and racial and ethnic disparities in jail usage. Eleven have now been selected for a second round of deep implementation funding. With an initial two years of support and the help and advice of a consortium of national experts, our “core” or implementation sites are now beginning to undertake policy and practice changes intended to keep people out of jail who don’t belong there, diverting them where possible, shortening their stays, and testing and strengthening safe alternatives. The other nine “partner” sites remain active members of the Challenge Network learning community, receiving grants to support continued progress and planning, and will be eligible for subsequent rounds of funding in 2017.

The Network will soon get even bigger. A new Innovation Fund, established by the Foundation at the Urban Institute, will shortly begin providing seed funding to many more jurisdictions seeking support for new approaches. Our intention is not just to provide short-term support for change, but to build capacity for larger reform efforts over the longer term, and thus to help grow a broader national movement to address the overuse and misuse of jails.

We are surrounding all these local efforts with investments in communications, research and evaluation, and strategic alliances with key stakeholder groups, not only to support change in local sites, but to amplify the results achieved and soften the ground for the spread of reform at the national level.

While it is still early to say what will be the results of all this activity, we are already learning that every local criminal justice system is different—and that all are, in some sense, the same. Our core sites, charged with developing their own solutions to local problems, are working from different starting points, tackling different issues, operating within different legal structures and cultural contexts, and employing different levers to achieve incarceration reduction goals. At the same time, they all struggle with the historic legacy of racism, and the stark racial and ethnic disparities that burden local criminal justice systems as a result. All face challenges stemming from breakdowns and shortfalls in community mental health, drug treatment, education, and other local systems. And in order to make significant changes, all need the cooperation of a multitude of agencies and stakeholder groups that do not traditionally work together.

Yet we are encouraged and energized by our network of partners, by the enthusiasm they bring to the work, and by the progress they have already made in collaborating across systems, using data to drive planning and problem-solving, and engaging their communities in planning and implementing change.

We recognize, as we have from the outset, that there will be no quick victories here, and that we have a lot more to learn. However, we are more convinced than ever of the importance of this work and of the need for commitment to accelerating the momentum required to reach unstoppable change in how America thinks about and uses its jails in the context of more fair, equitable and effective local systems of justice.


This Director’s Reflection originally appeared on the Foundation’s website