Strengthening our Framework to Maximize Impact
By: Dylan Hayre, Director of Criminal Justice, Arnold Ventures
In a March 2022 report, the Bridgespan Group found that philanthropic funding to criminal legal reform efforts amounts to about $350 million. As the report points out, that number pales in comparison to the public and private investments in various parts of the system itself — for example, the United States spends $80 billion on prisons and another $115 billion on police. The difference is even more stark when we step back and reflect on the magnitude of the moment we’re in. With both increased attention from the public and important policy changes being considered at the state and federal levels, the opportunity to seize on reinvigorated national fervor for justice reform confronts the obligation to understand and respond to often erroneous narratives about crime, violence, and safety. More than ever, we have to find ways to maximize the impact of every dollar invested in reform efforts.
Three ideas can guide our thinking on how to achieve that.
1) Funders must recognize the dichotomy of progress.
For much of my career, I have seen, and perpetuated, the false notion that it is enough to eliminate or minimize systemic harm. Grassroots advocates have long recognized the myopia of that approach. They have pointed out that there are two prongs of progress, each of which should be pursued with equal vigor: we absolutely must make harmful things less harmful, while also investing in ideas or policies that will make good things more accessible. We cannot conflate decarceration, expungement, or the cessation of fees with access to housing, jobs, or economic justice.
For millions, the system does preclude their access to those things. But, even when the system’s harms are curtailed, those things will remain unreachable unless they are strengthened and expanded. It is not enough to be against harm; we must simultaneously be for healing — and fund or collaborate accordingly. Taken together, those ideas allow us to apply a new label to ourselves that hopefully tips the balance of narrative power back to us: more than just pro-reform, we can identify our efforts as truly pro-safety, knowing that harm reduction and access to restorative resources are key underpinnings of community safety.
2) We should support work to help expand the scope of accountability.
For as long as advocates have demanded decarceration, they’ve been asked about accountability: if we divert people away or release them from the system, how will we hold them accountable? Often, we limit our response to the idea that incarceration is not tantamount to genuine accountability.
With a deeper understanding of the history of systemic harm, across multiple systems, comes the need for a more holistic response: not only are we not achieving real accountability in the criminal legal system as it is today — since it often does not create space for genuine healing and reflection — but also we may not even be trying to hold the right people accountable. What about policymakers that redlined communities into economic segregation? Bankers that mercilessly foreclosed on the homes of economically vulnerable people? Employers that divested from communities and took jobs with them?
So often, violence and harm are the manifest consequences of conditions that other, larger actors and decision-makers helped create. Regressive accountability means thrusting the full obligation of accountability solely onto the shoulders of a person who committed violence or harm — the one person in that whole labyrinth of cause and effect who is perhaps least equipped to answer for all of the causes. A progressive vision of accountability means supporting conversations and policy solutions built around broadening the range of people subject to genuine accountability, even while knowing that may require vulnerable internal reflection on the historic role of philanthropy and philanthropic power.
3) We must remember that policy resilience is built by putting evidence in the hands of directly impacted leaders.
Evidence of what policies work, which do not, and why, is the foundation for resilience. It allows us to clearly, unequivocally demonstrate the efficacy of enacted solutions or identify potential fixes when certain ideas are not achieving desired outcomes. We massively increase the potential power of evidence when we pair it with the lived experience of directly impacted people, whose lives, traumas, hopes, and values have to drive policy reform efforts. It is one thing for philanthropies to invest in building the evidence base through research, programmatic evaluation, or technical assistance. But that knowledge cannot live with us or just get fed back into the systems that produced it. If we are serious about tackling the crisis of mass criminalization, we must shift power by sharing knowledge with and learning from people whose leadership and vision we should trust, which also necessarily includes authentically recruiting directly impacted people to work in philanthropy.
None of this is easy. Bringing this approach to our work will not happen overnight. But making a sincere, institutional commitment to these approaches is one place to begin.
Dylan Hayre is a Director of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures, where he helps identify and manage philanthropic opportunities and strategies for the Criminal Justice team, focusing on supervision and reintegration.
In March, Philanthropy New York hosted How Philanthropy is Advancing Criminal Legal Reform in a Changing Political Landscape with Dylan and several NPO leaders advocating for sustainable change in the criminal legal system amidst a changing political landscape.
Watch the recording here!