Organization Says a Billion Dollar Bet Could Stop Over-Criminalization

October 14, 2016 by

A nonprofit group released a study on over-criminalization’s impact on low-income, often minority, communities as part of its series called “Billion Dollars Bets” to Create Economic Opportunity for Every American research.

This Bridgespan Group paper focuses on how a “billion dollar bet” of philanthropic contributions can decrease over-criminalization, if targeted at low-income communities of color. Saying that, “policy changes are needed to redirect funding streams from harmful punitive practice to evidence-based programs and interventions focused on prevention and rehabilitation.”

Some of the policy changes needed, the group says, include decreasing the rates of adult and youth interactions with the criminal justice system, reducing the number of people entering the system through prison, jail, or probation, and ensuring that those incarcerated receive reentry services such as rehabilitation.

Ultimately, the research boils down to two areas where philanthropists can have the biggest impact: supporting policies to reduce over-criminalization in schools and supporting diversion, rehabilitation, and reentry programs. This information isn’t new to those who have been actively fighting for criminal justice reform. However, what officials who often reject these reforms point to is the costs associated with these policy changes. Bridgespan’s approach nullifies that point.

The group rightfully acknowledges that investing in one person, or inmate, has a compounding effect, saying “former inmates work fewer weeks each year, earn less money, and have limited upward mobility. These costs are borne by offenders’ families and communities, and they reverberate across generations.”

States like Texas have seen major successes in crime reduction while simultaneously reducing incarceration rates, but the same can’t be said on the federal level. Policing practices and mandatory minimums have continued the uptick in over-criminalizing minor crimes.

Bridgespan draws the correlation between federal tough on crime statutes leading to incarceration and the impact of children growing up without one or both parents.

“One in nine black children has an incarcerated parent, compared to one in 28 Hispanic children and one in 56 white children. These children are more likely to have a lower overall family income and increased difficulty in school.”

“Philanthropy can play an important role by partnering with public institutions to co-create screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-12-02-05-pmsolutions and by providing the seed capital to catalyze change.” An example of this given by the group would be when philanthropists provide start-up costs for treatment and diversion programs. Their idea is to begin with reducing the number of individuals coming into the system and end with a decreased number of individuals whose economic mobility is limited because of their criminal record.

Through their research Bridgespan identified three areas that they feel philanthropy would significantly speed up change in the criminal justice system:

  • Funding a research organization to collect, analyze, and disseminate hard data on incarceration in our country.
  • Funding a national grant-based competition encouraging governments to create plans that reduce recidivism and incarceration, which is an area where the MacArthur Foundation has been a leader.
  • Collect and analyze data coming from the states to see its nationwide impact.

The group estimated that the investments they identified would result in 185,000 – screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-12-29-00-pm300,000 individuals avoiding criminal convictions. Without those convictions, they further estimate that lifetime earnings for that same group of individuals would increase between $4.3 billion and $8.3 billion.

The group’s approach is a positive change from others who often suggest building more prisons, strengthening laws, and redirecting government funds to do so.  We’ve seen how successful philanthropic efforts aimed at reforming the justice system can be, and this is another opportunity to put that theory to the test.


About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.