Toward Community Justice: Upstream Investment Is Criminal Legal Reform

By: Julian Adler (he/him/his), Chidinma Ume

Community Engagement Courts Interagency Collaboration June 6, 2024

Criminal legal reformers are increasingly adopting a more holistic conception of safety, one where the goals of reducing crime, violence, and recidivism are necessary but not sufficient. This means extending the parameters of public safety investment beyond the traditional boundaries of the criminal legal system.

A new policy brief from the Center for Justice Innovation makes the case for why investment “upstream” of justice-system involvement—investment in and tailored to communities—is criminal legal reform and promotes community safety.

Los Angeles County, for example, may have quietly rolled out the next generation of criminal legal reform. Ballot Measure J, which was approved by voters in 2020 and is now the Care First Community Investment Spending Plan (CFCI), mandates that at least 10 percent of the county’s locally-generated, unrestricted funds—estimated to be between $360 million and $900 million in the first year alone—go toward direct investment in social services and community-based alternatives to incarceration. In establishing CFCI, the county declared it “time to structurally shift…budget priorities and reimagine Los Angeles County” to “address racial injustice, over-reliance on law enforcement interventions, limited economic opportunity, health disparities, and housing instability.”

If implemented well, CFCI will serve as a vision of community safety as part of a larger push for community justice. This vision runs counter to the status quo in most cities and counties, and it requires deeper investments in community-led programs and preventative services upstream from system-involvement.

Despite the conventional wisdom that contact with the criminal legal system deters crime, research tells a more complicated story. Even fleeting system-involvement can increase a person’s future risk of an arrest. As for longer periods of confinement, a recent meta-analysis of more than a hundred research studies concludes—as a matter of “criminological fact”—that incarceration has “no effect on reoffending or slightly increase[s] it when compared with noncustodial sanctions.”

Researchers have found that the bulk of the needs driving system-involvement include the need for familial support, stable employment, educational opportunities, and strong community ties—all needs most meaningfully addressed within the community.

A recent comprehensive review of evidence-backed strategies for reducing community violence cites a shortlist of effective measures, including improvements to neighborhood environments, efforts to promote anti-violence social norms, and youth engagement programs. These kinds of upstream strategies will not look the same in every community, and there is powerful evidence to support this locally-tailored approach.

A team led by Princeton University sociologist Patrick Sharkey found that “every 10 additional organizations focusing on crime and community life in a city with 100,000 residents leads to a nine percent reduction in the murder rate, a six percent reduction in the violent crime rate, and a four percent reduction in the property crime rate.”

And then there are the cost savings. In New York City, the comptroller calculated that the cost of jailing one person for one year was a staggering $556,539. If you are imagining the good that could be done if those public sums were redirected, consider that it costs less than one-thirteenth of that amount—$42,000—to provide supportive housing with services for the same period. In establishing CFCI, Los Angeles estimated that the almost $400 million it was spending annually to house roughly 900 youth in juvenile facilities could fund a full year’s tuition for more than 30,000 in-state students at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Yet across the country, city and county governments continue to focus on shoring up responses to crime rather than minimizing the need for these responses in the first place. With few exceptions, governments at all levels allocate the lion’s share of their budgets to law enforcement agencies, shouldering them with almost exclusive responsibility for community safety—along with sizeable investments in other “downstream” agencies such as pretrial services and probation departments. Even with compelling research evidence in hand, reformers have struggled to broaden the gaze of governments to include preventative intervention as a credible and effective use of public safety dollars.

There are encouraging signs, however. The City of St. Louis recently established an Office of Violence Prevention. In Los Angeles, Mayor Karen Bass has pledged to “hold people who commit crimes accountable,” but also “to take real steps to prevent crime from happening in the first place.” She is investing in the social and economic conditions impacting families via a new Office of Community Safety. In New York City, through a range of initiatives in historically disinvested communities, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice is working to “democratiz[e] public safety while removing systemic barriers that many residents have and continue to face.”

But we must go further. In pursuit of lasting impact, reformers—and their counterparts in government and philanthropy—must swim upstream toward the waters of community-led innovation. Does this approach to reform make the work more complex and less conducive to easy replication? Does it shift considerable power from system actors to community members? Will it change the world for the better? Yes, yes, and yes.


Community Engagement Crime February 8, 2024

Redefining Community Safety in Missoula, Montana

Lee Ann Slocum, Claire Greene, Beth M. Huebner, Kiley Bednar, Adriano Udani, Robert Boxerman, Sarah Kirk, Konstadina Spanoudakis, Hayden Steingruby, Elizabeth Lyne, Emelyne Lane

Everyone wants to feel safe in their community. Yet, little is known about how people make sense of what community safety looks and feels like to them. Discussions among policymakers and in the media often emphasize crime rates as a key measure of community safety and the criminal legal system as the primary means of achieving this goal. This traditional conceptualization has several negative consequences. First, it often overlooks the perspectives and experiences of people most impacted by violence, high levels of enforcement, and mass incarceration, many of whom are people of color. Second, low crime rates do not necessarily ensure that residents perceive their community is safe. Other factors, such as media coverage and the physical and social environment, also play a role in shaping views of safety. Moreover, not all crime is reported to authorities, and this may be particularly true in areas where residents experience elevated levels of police enforcement activity and have little trust in the police. Third, relying on crime and other criminal legal system data can provide a narrow and skewed conceptualization of safety because they tend to reflect law enforcement priorities, police discretion, and willingness to report crime. Finally, aspects of safety captured by criminal legal system data may not align with community priorities or values. Narrow crime-oriented definitions often fail to recognize that conversations around community safety are highly localized. Allowing communities to define what safety means to them facilitates the development of locally driven priorities for action and interventions, ultimately helping advance the goal of safety for all.

This report explores the meaning of community safety for people who live and work in Missoula County, Montana by documenting local dynamics of crime, the criminal legal system, and conversations around the meaning of community safety. This report is part of a larger project that considers how adult residents of three US counties (Missoula County, Montana, St. Louis County, Missouri; and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina) define and understand community safety. These counties are currently working on interventions around crime and community safety funded, in part, thought the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge. The goal of the project was to develop a broad conceptualization of community safety that considers the views of people most impacted by crime and the criminal legal system. The findings are based on data from community surveys, as well as interviews and focus groups. The surveys were designed to capture a diversity of community voices. The interviews and focus groups allowed for a more in-depth examination of the views of criminal legal system actors, system-impacted individuals, and people who work with system-impacted persons, groups whose voices are often omitted in work of this type. Throughout, we draw on the interviews to highlight key findings and bring voice to the people closest to the challenges of building and maintaining safe communities.

Illinois Bail Reform Makes Justice System More Equitable and Fair

By: Laurie Garduque

Bail Data Analysis Pretrial and Bail September 18, 2023

The justice system in MacArthur’s home state of Illinois is set to become more just, equitable, and fair without increasing crime, thanks to the Pretrial Fairness Act. While many people and organizations worked towards this landmark reform bill for years, MacArthur’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) helped support non-partisan analysis and research and education around key parts of the bill.

The Pretrial Fairness Act makes a range of reforms to the criminal justice system in Illinois. One of the most significant changes is eliminating cash bail and redesigning the pretrial process and decision-making. Illinois is the first state in the nation to ban cash bail entirely.

The end of cash bail in Illinois, which goes into effect September 18, 2023, will reduce the discriminatory impact of the justice system in the state. In the past, cash bail left people in jail who could not afford to pay bond, while those with greater access to resources were released and able to return to their families, jobs, and homes.

Under the new system, people are released from jail unless the State’s Attorney initiates a petition for detention, based on the risk of a defendant committing another crime or fleeing prosecution. When this occurs, a hearing is held, evidence of risk to the community is presented and evaluated, and the judge determines if pretrial release will be granted. By removing the role of money and wealth from pretrial release, the Pretrial Fairness Act will promote greater equity and fairness, particularly for people with lower income and members of historically marginalized communities in Illinois.

Analyzing the Impact of Local Reforms

While support for ending cash bail had been building for a while, some important steps happened in Cook County under their MacArthur SJC grant. The Cook County’s Office of the Chief Judge issued a general order in 2017, designed to increase pretrial release without cash bail and increase the affordability of cash bail when used as a condition of release. The chief judge received collaborative support and buy-in from other system and community stakeholders to implement these changes.

And, because SJC prioritizes data transparency and analysis, the Office of the Chief Judge shared their data with another MacArthur grantee for analysis: Loyola University of Chicago’s Center for Criminal Justice.

Loyola deserves credit for its efforts to educate journalists, government officials, and the public about how bail reform impacts community safety. Their analysis of bail reform in Cook County since 2017 traced people who had been released pretrial. What they found was invaluable to the debate around bail reform in the Pretrial Fairness Act: they learned that there was no change in the rate at which defendants were charged with new crimes in the six months or year following their release, even though the number of people released during this period increased.

Data showed that bail reform in Cook County had no effect on new criminal activity or crime. This was based on analysis performed by Loyola University Chicago under a grant from MacArthur.

Loyola’s Professors Don Stemen and David Olson concluded that Cook County’s decreased use of cash bail had no impact on new criminal activity or crime. Overall crime rates in Chicago, including violent crime rates, were not any higher after the implementation of bail reform. The analysis and findings in Cook County resembled other areas where similar bail reform efforts have been undertaken, such as New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.

The analysis also showed that releasing people while they await trial does not make communities less safe. Monetary bail, however, does impose a burden on the individuals and families who are least able to afford it. Like bail reform efforts in other communities, Cook County’s initiative demonstrated that it is possible to decrease the use of monetary bail and pretrial detention–lessening the financial, physical, and psychological harms that come with pretrial detention–without affecting criminal activity or crime rates.

Without Cook County modeling bail reform for the rest of Illinois and Loyola analyzing and sharing the results, Illinois may not have had the support to end cash bail statewide.

Implementing reforms at the local level, analyzing the results, and sharing learnings is at the heart of SJC as we try to encourage the spread of reform across the country. The Pretrial Fairness Act, a first-in-the nation law, took lessons from a local community and used it to inform smart reform decisions at the state level. This shows exactly the type of momentum the Safety and Justice Challenge was designed to push forward, and we know it will have a positive impact on people’s lives, even as there is more work to be done.


Issue Brief

Frequent Jail Users Frequent Utilizers Human Toll of Jail Jail Populations Mental Health July 25, 2023

Recommendations To Reduce Frequent Jail Contact

Sarah L. Desmarais, Brandon Morrissey, Lisa Callahan, Samantha A. Zottola, Jen Elder, Kristin Lupfer, Elan C. Hope, & Richard A. Van Dorn

Although most jail admissions represent the only contact a person will have with the criminal legal system, there is a small group of people who experience more frequent jail contact and who represent a disproportionate number of both jail admissions and expenditures.1,2 People with frequent jail contact experience complex, interconnected social, economic, and behavioral health needs that may exacerbate (or be exacerbated by) their frequent jail contact. This group also experiences frequent contact with other services in the community, such as emergency rooms, homeless shelters, and treatment facilities. Strategies to implement services that meet complex needs and address structural barriers are critical to meaningfully and sustainably reduce system involvement among the population of people who experience frequent jail contact.

Effective change for people with frequent jail contact must proceed simultaneously on a systemic, policy level and on the individual services level. The population discussed in this policy brief typically has complicated behavioral and medical health needs, extensive criminal legal encounters, and significant social deficits such as poverty, isolation, and elevated risk of being unhoused. Many of their needs can be addressed with intensive, person-centered treatment in a coordinated continuum of care. The success of community-based solutions is supported by three foundational elements:

  1. A systemwide examination of structural barriers and opportunities,
  2. A focus on policies to effectively implement and support evidence-based interventions, and
  3. A re-envisioning of how the behavioral health and criminal legal systems can coordinate trauma-informed responses for people with frequent jail contact.


1 Elsa Augustine and Evan White, High Utilizers of Multiple Systems in Sonoma County 1-31 (2020), uploads/2020/07/High-Utilizers-of-Multiple-Systems-in-Sonoma-County.pdf.

2 Ross MacDonald, Fatos Kaba, Zachary Rosner, Allison Vise, David Weiss, Mindy Brittner, Molly Skerker, Nathaniel Dickey, and Homer Venters, The Rikers Island Hot Spotters: Defining the Needs of the Most Frequently Incarcerated, 105 American Journal of Public Health 2262–2268 (2015),

Additional Downloads


Bail Community Engagement Crime Data Analysis Featured Jurisdictions Human Toll of Jail Jail Populations Pretrial and Bail Pretrial and Jails Pretrial Justice Pretrial Services Racial Disparities July 1, 2022

Expanding Supervised Release in New York City

Safety and Justice Challenge, Center for Court Innovation

In 2015, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), a multi-year initiative to reduce populations and racial disparities in American jails. To advance knowledge development grounded in a research agenda that explores, evaluates, and documents site-specific strategies to safely and effectively reduce jail populations and address racial and ethnic disparities, the Foundation engaged the Institute for State & Local Governance (ISLG) at the City University of New York (CUNY) to establish and oversee an SJC Research Consortium. Consortium members are nationally renowned research, policy, and academic organizations collaborating with SJC sites to build an evidence base focused on pretrial reform efforts.

Under New York City’s Supervised Release Program (SRP) individuals awaiting trial are released under community supervision to ensure their return to court, instead of via bail or pretrial detention. Defendants are eligible for the citywide SRP if they meet specific criteria, including arrest charge type, estimated risk status, and community ties. Towards the goal of reducing the jail population, New York City expanded the City’s Supervised Release Program (SRP) several times by altering the eligibility criteria to include a wider range of individuals. The first large expansion of SRP since 2016 occurred at the beginning of June 2019. A subsequent program expansion occurred in December 2019 as New York State prepared for 2020 bail reform legislation to go into effect.

In an effort to better understand the impact of expansion of SRP as a jail-reduction strategy, ISLG and the SJC Research Consortium funded the Center for Court Innovation to examine the impact of the June 2019 expansion. The Center conducted a time series analysis to determine if observed post-expansion SRP enrollment and/or detention rates significantly differed from predicted rates. The study found that the expansion increased SRP rates across racial groups and reduced detention for non-violent felony offenses, though not for misdemeanor offenses. In addition, the findings show increased use of SRP for misdemeanor offenses, which may suggest net-widening.

Key takeaways:

  1. Increasing program participation does not always decrease detention. For small program expansions (like the 2019 expansion) to have a true impact on detention, these initiatives must target serious crimes that are likely to be detained.

  2. Large changes are needed for large impact. Larger expansions, especially those that are driven by legislative change (like the December 2019 expansion in preparation for bail reform), can have a greater impact on detention compared to smaller expansions.

  3. Targeted efforts to reduce racial disparities are necessary. Disparities are not automatically impacted by increasing program participation and decreasing detention across the board. To reduce racial disparities, targeted efforts must be made.

Together, the findings suggest that the SRP expansion reduced detention for some offenses and highlight the importance of measuring the impact of program implementation and expansion to inform future work and jail reduction efforts in New York City and other jurisdictions.