Criminal justice reform is an opportunity for every funder


Cora Daniels


Four years ago, the murder of George Floyd sparked massive protests around the world that focused attention on criminal justice issues. Yet, back in the U.S., where the activism started, a wave of political retrenchment is taking hold, rolling back much of the reform that was won. 

It means that for philanthropy seeking social change, there is an urgent need to fund efforts working to reform and reimagine the criminal legal system.

The Bridgespan Group first published about the tremendous opportunity for philanthropy to invest in criminal justice reform in the U.S. in 2022. At the time, our analysis found that funding for criminal justice reform amounted to just $343 million, up from $130 million in 2014. Given how overlooked the space often is, we found that the resources of even just one funder can have considerable impact.

Funders who were already active in the space saw this urgent moment coming. During our research, Carmen Rojas, CEO of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, a long-time funder of community organizing efforts, warned: ‘Too often, we as progressive people with resources count every victory as meaningful and material and don’t actually fight to keep it.’

‘Every state in the U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than virtually any independent democracy on earth. And it is a system that costs at least $182 billion a year’

Today there are more than 1.9 million people behind bars in the U.S. on any given day, giving the nation the distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world—higher than Russia, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia. In fact, every state in the U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than virtually any independent democracy on earth. And it is a system that costs at least $182 billion a year.

Large-scale criminal justice philanthropy – funders who think of themselves as tied to these issues in similar ways that housing or education funders focus their giving – has come into prominence only in the past six or seven years, often spurred by events such as the protests we saw in 2020. This form of philanthropy’s relative infancy means that many organizations are still very under-resourced.

However, greater investment in these efforts is an opportunity not just for those who count themselves as criminal justice funders but for any funder seeking equitable social change.

That is because the work of criminal justice reform is broader than reducing incarceration. 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 (prisons are often more vulnerable to extreme heat, floods, natural disasters, and some are built on toxic land).

In fact, approximately 77 million Americans, or one in every three adults, have a criminal record, which limits opportunities for jobs, housing, and higher education. Now consider that those limited opportunities affect not just a single person but also an entire family, household, community, and even the nation’s economy, given that the U.S. labor and housing markets are built to exclude people with criminal records.

‘I think justice should be rooted in accountability. It should be rooted in healing and support. It should be rooted in prevention. It should be rooted in addressing the root cause of whatever happened. I think those are the key tenets of justice,’ Robert Rooks, CEO of REFORM Alliance and one of the nation’s top criminal justice reformers, said on an episode of the most recent season of Bridgespan’s Dreaming in Color podcast. ‘[Instead] what we’ve been seeing is a one size fits all approach to what we call justice and that’s incarceration–and that doesn’t work.’

Our research found that there are three critical areas of criminal justice reform that are deeply under-resourced. In addition, funding is needed especially across the U.S. South and Midwest, where philanthropic resources are lower and criminal justice system challenges more daunting. Here are opportunities for investment:

  • Leadership development: Movement leaders require the resources, knowledge, support, and structure to run successful organizations, as well as the space to develop visions for the future and strategies to get there. Supporting leaders also means creating space for healing and recharging in community with others, which can be critical to movement leaders of colour most impacted by the criminal legal system.
  • Organizing: Funders more familiar with short-term organizing for political campaigns often underestimate both the number of organizers required to achieve transformative change and the time such mobilization efforts take, which can be decades. The movement would benefit from more institutions devoted to training organizers, building a robust pipeline of them, and ensuring they are appropriately compensated.
  • Direct advocacy: While significant advocacy work can be supported with 501(c)3 gifts, movement leaders emphasize the need for more 501(c)4 funding, the scarcity of which can be particularly stark for Black and Indigenous-led organizations. Norris Henderson, founder of c3 and c4 sibling organizations Voices of the Experienced and Voters Organized to Educate, says simply: ‘When you attract c4 dollars, you don’t just play in the game, you can set the rules for the game.’

The ripples of harm from incarceration affect millions of families each day. Thankfully, there is a vibrancy of organizations doing the hard work to tackle the problems. These leaders often see themselves as trying to undo a status quo that jeopardizes our collective humanity.

We have seen that the road to lasting social change is rarely a straight path. Instead, there are stops and starts and ups and downs. Progress on criminal justice issues is no different. As Rojas reminds us, part of the hard work is fighting to keep the wins. That is a fight that needs everyone’s help, as the time is now.

Cora Daniels is a senior editorial director at The Bridgespan Group, based in New York. She is co-author of Making the Case: Philanthropy’s Role in the Movement to Reimagine Criminal Justice

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