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Criminal Justice

Our Goal

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

Why We Support This Work

Despite growing national attention to the large number of Americans 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 Vera Institute of Justice, there are nearly 12 million local jail admissions every year—almost 20 times the number of prison admissions and equivalent to the populations of Los Angeles and New York combined.
  • Three out five people in jail are legally presumed innocent, awaiting trial or resolution of their cases through plea negotiations and simply too poor to post even low bail. 
  • Nearly 75 percent of the population of both sentenced offenders and pretrial detainees 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 abuse issues.
  • From 1982 to 2011, cumulative expenditures related to building and running jails increased nearly 235 percent. Local jurisdictions now spend $22.2 billion annually on correctional institutions.

In thinking about the problem of over-incarceration, it is critical that we focus on the contribution made by local jails and the systems that fill them. Solving the problem of over-incarceration in America requires tackling the overuse of jails.

There are solutions that can increase public safety, establish a fairer system, and ensure that people in jail are only those who must be there because they pose a risk to others. Further, reducing the number of people in jails would save taxpayers billions of dollars each year and would allow jurisdictions to reinvest in critical services like education, mental health care, and workforce development to strengthen families and communities and help keep people out of jail.

Our Approach

Through the Safety and Justice Challenge, we are engaging in a long-term strategy of investment in local reform, research, experimentation, and communications intended to create national demand for local justice reform as a means of reducing over-incarceration in America.

The Challenge supports jurisdictions across the country working to safely reduce over-reliance on jails, with a particular focus on addressing disproportionate impact on low-income individuals and communities of color. Central to the initiative is a competition through which we are funding a set of jurisdictions to design and implement plans for creating fairer, more effective local justice systems using innovative, collaborative, and evidence-based solutions and another group of jurisdictions to support a single innovative justice reform program or project.

The work of these sites will raise the profile of the problem of overuse and misuse of jails and demonstrate alternatives to incarceration as usual. Their efforts will reveal new and better ways of targeting resources, more effective means of managing and mitigating risk without resorting to incarceration, and better public safety returns and social outcomes.

To advance our knowledge and understanding about the use of jail in America and to document the experience of local jurisdictions that succeed in building more effective and just criminal justice systems, the we are complementing our grants to local jurisdictions with investments in research and data analytics. We are also investing in a robust communications strategy aimed at elevating jail overuse and misuse into an urgent national issue, spreading effective approaches and practices in justice reform, and generating national demand for a more balanced set of approaches to crime and disorder that use incarceration only where necessary and as part of a flexible range of effective alternatives.

The Challenge engages a diverse range of organizations and individuals—law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, defenders, policymakers, academia, advocates, and funders—to lend their insights and participation to this effort. Many of the nation's leading criminal justice organizations provide technical assistance, data analysis, and other support to Safety and Justice Challenge jurisdictions, including the Center for Court Innovation, the Institute for State and Local Governance at the City University of New York, the Justice Management Institute, Justice System Partners, the Pretrial Justice Institute, the Vera Institute of Justice, Policy Research, Inc., and the W. Haywood Burns Institute.

Expected Outcomes

The criminal justice work is intended to yield a variety of national and local outcomes. Outcomes in each Challenge jurisdiction will vary based on local context, needs, and target reforms in policy and practice. They may range from efforts to reduce unnecessary arrests through expanded use of citations to minimizing pretrial detention stays through faster case processing, all while maintaining or improving public safety. Trends in jail incarceration growth and reduction will be monitored in each site. At the national level, we seek impact as measured by shifts in public perception and national dialogue regarding incarceration, an increased number of jurisdictions undertaking local reform across the country and adopting best practices and policies, and an overall reduction in the national incarceration rate.

Funding Priorities

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

  • Develop and maintain a network of model sites seeking to change their systems to reduce jail use and racial and ethnic disparities;
  • Provide technical assistance, project management, and measurement support to those sites;
  • Generate new knowledge about what works to change local criminal justice systems and reduce jail use;
  • Increase public awareness of the problem of jail overuse and the need for solutions;
  • Enlist organizations that represent important stakeholder groups and communities in support of reforms to reduce jail overuse; and
  • Engage organizations working to achieve similar reforms in Illinois, whose work serves to ground the national strategy in our home state.

While we are not accepting unsolicited proposals at this time, we are always eager to hear new ideas and perspectives.


Measurement & Evaluation for Learning

We believe that informed decision-making leads to more effective stewardship of resources and better results. It enhances our understanding of our work and, ultimately, helps to guide our thinking using Design/Build. Evaluation results are key inputs into our ongoing learning, and we consider how our learning needs change, with a greater emphasis on understanding context and the landscape earlier on and with more focus on understanding progress, outcomes, and our contribution over time. Evaluation is not a one-time event. It is an ongoing process of collecting information and using that information to deploy resources most effectively.

The Safety and Justice Challenge has engaged an evaluation and learning partner to advise us on initiative design and to build an evaluation framework for the initiative. The evaluation will seek to ascertain the extent to which the Safety and Justice Challenge is successful in reducing jail incarceration and disparate treatment in implementation sites, as well as the extent to which its activities result in similar changes in the nation as a whole. The evaluation will focus on metrics within the funded implementation 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.

Evaluations will be published as they are completed.


Updated June 2019

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