Reflections on Criminal Justice Reform and Philanthropy

Via email, AREA Chicago speaks to Deborah Harrington, President of the Woods Fund, to get her insights on criminal justice reform in Illinois.

What (major) opportunities do you see for creating more coordinated city-wide work around criminal justice issues? How might funds and resources be used to help city-wide efforts realize their full potential?

I believe that greater discussion and collaboration among funders is an essential measure. It will provide a more realistic picture of funding gaps and opportunities that enable the philanthropic community to more clearly understand how it might strategically make sound criminal justice investments that are in alignment with foundation goals and missions.

Foundations can use their considerable influence to create new and unexpected allies among the civic and business communities, policy makers, government officials, community organizations and other important stakeholders.

Both the Governor and the Mayor have produced thoughtful reports of recommendations on prisoner re-entry and systems reform. It would be highly useful to review these reports together and finds ways to take the best of both—implement best practices and promising demonstration models. In undertaking this process, the challenge will be to ensure that measurable benchmarks and accountability systems are in place.

A comprehensive communications and media strategy is imperative to change the face of the former offender, build public will, and shape the political debate. We need to focus on rehabilitation vs. punishment, including workforce preparation, emphasizing the benefits of strong families, individual and social capital and healthy communities.

What obstacles for collaboration exist among Chicago groups working on criminal justice issues? What role can funders play in overcoming these obstacles?

Most nonprofit organizations simply do not have adequate time, staff and resources to consistently come to various tables and work on these issues. This is why coalition building is essential so that there is a committed body of people with a shared agenda, working systematically and collectively for reform.

Collaboration is difficult because each organization has different goals and missions driving their work. The nature of foundations sometimes unintentionally creates competition among organizations for the limited dollars that are awarded.

A great deal of policy attention must be given to the moment of release to build bridges during this transition period away from prison. We should establish policies and processes that systematically provide community services and resources to assist people returning home in reestablishing family and community connections. We should also combine this with a continuum of interventions that improve the success of reintegration.

From trends like second-generation incarceration to the declining age of people committing violent acts, it is vital that we consider the long-term impacts of today’s criminal justice policies and practices. How can the future orientation of funding in the criminal justice field be strengthened?

Criminal justice reform is multifaceted and related to most social justice issues such as affordable housing, health care, workforce development, education and the like. Given the interrelationship of these issues there is no “silver bullet.” In reality it will require real leadership and by this I mean people of influence taking risks and trying innovative, yet proven initiatives that work. There is a wealth of research and body of work on exciting models like Sheridan Prison here in Illinois. But we need the political will to move these promising practices to reality. It will also take the voices of community residents organizing and advocating for system reform.

We need to build a stronger and more vibrant advocacy infrastructure in the city and state. Metro 20/20’s recently released 2006 Crime and Justice Index amplifies how dramatically the “get tough on crime” polices that began in the ’70s have harmed our communities. When I read statistics like the ones found in this report, I find myself asking the question “Where is the outrage?”

For example:

The 245,000 people under correctional supervision in Illinois would constitute the second largest city in the state. —This statistic cries out for further examination. Clearly we need to move from “get tough” to “get smart” criminal justice policies.

Illinois, its counties and municipalities spend nearly $7 billion a year on multi-level criminal justice system. —How can the Illinois legislature and public justify these extraordinary public expenditures while at the same time our state confronts a severe budget deficit?

From 1990 to 2004, Illinois corrections spending increased 4 times faster that spending on higher education. —Why isn’t more attention given to closing the achievement gap? Where are our priorities?

Whites make up 70% of those using illegal drugs, but 80% of those imprisoned for drug crimes are non-white. —Is anyone paying attention to this alarming racial disparity?

Illinois’ prison population has increased by more that 500% over the last 35 years. 2/3 of those committed to the Illinois Department of Corrections are from the Chicago region, yet most prisons are located downstate. —Rural communities have become dependent on the prison industry as an economic engine. In order to get policy makers to close some of these prisons we need to propose viable economic development incentives for downstate communities.