Criminal Justice

Working to address over-incarceration and racial and ethnic disparities by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.

Our Strategy

Through the Safety and Justice Challenge, we are investing in local reform, research, innovation, and communications to create national demand for local justice reforms that will safely reduce jail populations and eliminate racial and ethnic disparities.

Participating cities and counties engage community advocates, people with lived experiences, and system actors as equal partners in criminal justice reform to design and implement plans for creating local justice systems that are fairer, more just, and more equitable through innovative, collaborative, and evidence-based solutions. Many of the nation's leading criminal justice organizations provide technical assistance, data analysis, and other support to Safety and Justice Challenge communities.

The work of these sites highlights the misuse of jails, how local criminal justice systems perpetuate historical racial injustices, and ways cities, counties, and communities can address these problems. It also reveals more effective means of managing and mitigating safety risks without resorting to incarceration, as well as what it takes to build communities that are safe for everyone.

To advance our knowledge and understanding of the use of jails in America and to document the experience of communities that are succeeding in building fairer, more just, and more equitable criminal justice systems, we are complementing our grants to cities and counties with investments in research and data analytics. We also have invested in a robust communications strategy that continues to elevate jail overuse and misuse into an urgent national issue, spreads effective approaches and practices in justice reform, and generates national demand for reform. This includes partnerships with national professional and policy organizations to mobilize specific constituencies and amplify the strategies and learnings from the Safety and Justice Challenge.

A group of volunteers with Envisioning Justice pose for a picture.

Volunteers at an event for Illinois Humanities - Envisioning Justice Activation Day.

Why We Support This Work

Despite growing national attention to the large number of people confined in state and federal prisons, significantly less attention has been paid to local justice systems, where the criminal justice system primarily operates and where over-incarceration begins.

  • According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there were more than 7 million local jail admissions in 2022—almost 15 times the number of prison admissions.
  • Three out of five people in jail are legally presumed innocent, awaiting trial or resolution of their cases through plea negotiations or simply too poor to post even low bail. 
  • Nearly 75 percent of the jail population are in jail for nonviolent offenses like traffic, property, drug, or public order violations.
  • Jails take their greatest toll on low-income people and communities of color, as well as people struggling with mental health or substance use issues.

To address over-incarceration, it is critical that we focus on local jails and the systems that fill them.

Expected Outcomes

The Safety and Justice Challenge seeks to achieve:

  • Fewer people incarcerated in America’s jails;
  • Fairer, more just, and more equitable use of jails by eliminating disparities in the justice system that harm people of color, people with low income, people with disabilities, and individuals with mental health and substance use issues, with the acknowledgment that the greatest harm is felt by people with several intersecting identities;
  • An increase in the number of cities and counties undertaking reform; and
  • Broader public understanding of the harms caused by the misuse and overuse of jails and possible solutions.

The specific reforms pursued by each challenge community vary based on local context and needs. They may range from efforts to reduce unnecessary arrests through expanded use of citations to minimizing pretrial detention stays through faster case processing.

Funding Priorities

Through the Safety and Justice Challenge, we provide funding to:

  • Develop and maintain a network of sites seeking to reform their criminal justice systems to reduce jail use and eliminate racial and ethnic disparities;
  • Provide technical assistance, project management, and measurement support to those sites;
  • Generate new knowledge about reforming local criminal justice systems, including reducing jail use, addressing racial and ethnic disparities, and engaging impacted communities;
  • Increase public awareness of jail overuse and the need for change;
  • Engage community advocates, people with lived experience, and justice system actors in reforms; and
  • Enlist organizations working to achieve reforms in Illinois in order to ground our national strategy in our home state.

We are not accepting unsolicited proposals at this time. However, contact us to share new ideas and perspectives.

Evaluation for Learning

Evaluation of our work is a critical tool for informing our decision making, leading to better results and more effective stewardship of resources. We develop customized evaluation designs for each of our programs based on the context, problem, opportunity, and approach to the work. Evaluation is not a one-time event. It is an ongoing process of collecting feedback and using that information to support our grantees and adjust our strategy.

The first evaluation of the Safety and Justice Challenge was completed in 2019, and describes baseline trends nationally and in Challenge sites. The Safety and Justice Challenge has engaged NORC as an Evaluation and Learning Partner to advise us on initiative design and to build an evaluation framework for the initiative.

Subsequent evaluation efforts will seek to ascertain to what extent the Safety and Justice Challenge is successful in reducing jail incarceration and addressing racial and ethnic disparities. They will also examine the extent to which the initiative’s activities help spread reform in the nation as a whole. The evaluation will look at metrics from Safety and Justice Challenge sites relative to a series of comparison sites and will track changes at seven key decision points, from arrest to post-disposition supervision in the community. An impact evaluation will document the initiative's contribution to broader national changes in jail populations and the national conversation about jail use and reform.

Findings and analyses from evaluation activities are posted publicly as they become available.

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