Laurie Garduque, Director of Criminal Justice, shares the progress of criminal justice reforms and preserving public safety in Safety and Justice Challenge communities, despite misleading public narratives about crime trends.


Over the last year, efforts to bring about a fairer, more just, and equitable justice system faced significant challenges. The United States has grappled with changing perceptions about crime, violence, and community safety. Misleading media narratives, campaigns targeting reform-minded public officials, and a flurry of “tough on crime” bills and policies have left many people feeling less safe and believing that reforms are to blame for crime and the diminishing quality of life in their community.

Despite the challenges posed by the national narrative about crime and the political landscape, the momentum for justice reform in communities participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) continues to grow. The network initially started in just 20 cities and counties in 2015; today, 80 cities and counties across 35 states regularly participate in SJC activities and convenings. SJC’s growth demonstrates that national impact is possible when local communities have information and resources about effective policies and practices, use data to drive decision making, engage in strategic local partnerships, and participate in peer learning.

Collectively, between 2016 and 2022, SJC cities and counties reduced their jail populations by 20 percent, outpacing the national decline of 11 percent over the same period. The SJC Practice Inventory, a database of the strategies and innovations deployed across the 26 SJC communities where MacArthur has invested most heavily, cites nearly 400 approaches and continues to grow.

SJC has shown that advancing criminal justice reform is possible without compromising public safety. Analysis of jail data from SJC cities and counties shows that people who were released pretrial were very unlikely to return to jail for any reason and extremely unlikely to return for a violent charge. This trend remained consistent before and after reforms were implemented, as well as after the start of COVID-19. And a detailed look at 12 SJC communities since the initial months of the pandemic indicated no relationship between jail population and crime trends. Declines in both jail bookings and jail populations have not translated to increased reported crime or arrests, and most types of crime have stabilized at or below pre-pandemic levels.

Just as importantly, SJC is responding to the needs of communities. Although it may seem that the fight for racial and ethnic justice and equity is in jeopardy with recent challenges at the local, state, and federal levels, SJC partners and allies remain committed to finding solutions that address structural and systemic racism within the justice system. In 2022, we launched the SJC Racial Equity Cohort, an effort involving both county and community partners with a deep commitment to achieving racial and ethnic equity, to employ strategies that target disparities, actively engage community members, and bring justice-impacted individuals into decision making.

We also launched the Just Home Project, an initiative designed to confront the reality that housing instability and insecurity contributes to individuals cycling in and out of jail. The first four communities participating in the Just Home Project are planning their respective housing development projects and utilizing cross-system approaches to better address the needs of justice-involved people.

Both the Just Home Project and the Racial Equity Cohort challenge the perception that meaningful and robust criminal justice reform only involves individuals working within the justice system. In reality, reform requires coordinated collaboration with other systems, including behavioral health providers, housing assistance, and other community partners to fully leverage and invest in resources that truly support community safety, security, and well-being.

The past year has made it clear that widespread perceptions about crime and public safety do not necessarily reflect reality.

The last few years have not been easy for the criminal justice system. Beyond the immediate challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation and financial instability have increased mental illness, substance use disorders, and homelessness, all of which impact local justice systems. Staffing challenges and turnover have contributed to case backlogs and hazardous conditions in jails for both incarcerated people and correctional personnel. Spikes in crime and violence occurred in communities across the political spectrum, regardless of their approach to criminal justice reforms. Despites these many setbacks and disruptions, research from our SJC partners shows that many SJC cities and counties successfully reduced their jail populations and incarceration rates without jeopardizing public safety during the height of the pandemic, and those trends continue today.

As we enter the final years of SJC, now is the time to solidify the impact and legacy of this initiative. We are making new investments to expand research and create a more supportive environment for current and future reform efforts. We are exploring how we can help reimagine the public safety workforce, by:

  • attracting and retaining a more diverse pool of new, young professionals in law, policy, research, and justice-related fields in the public and private sectors;
  • developing practices that address the persistent staffing shortages across disciplines; and
  • helping justice-impacted individuals gain the skills and support required for senior leadership positions.

The past year has made it clear that widespread perceptions about crime and public safety do not necessarily reflect reality. As we untangle the mismatch between perception and reality, we must push for a shared vision of community safety that is rooted in data, evidence, equity, and the lived experiences of individuals involved in the justice system. We look forward to the remaining years of SJC and we remain confident that participating communities, as well as our collaborators and allies, are up for the challenge.