The MacArthur Foundation Will Pay Prisons $75M to Downsize–So Why Are Advocates Mad?

Photo credit: babawawa.CC0/Public Domain license.

Photo credit: babawawa.
CC0/Public Domain license.

The MacArthur Foundation is best known for its “Genius Grants,” which have awarded $625,000 to “creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world” every year since 1981. But this year, the foundation is bankrolling some controversial new grantees: 20 jail systems in the U.S.

Grant recipients of the foundation’s new program, the “Safety and Justice Challenge,” include justice systems accused of medical neglect and other constitutional violations, such as New York City’s Rikers Island, New Orleans’ Parish Prison and in Missouri, St. Louis county’s system, which includes Ferguson. MacArthur’s funds are earmarked to help prosecutors, law enforcement, and criminal justice administrators decrease incarceration at the city and county level.

“We were concerned about the justice system and what happens to people when they are in contact with it,” said Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform at the foundation. “The idea is to change the way America thinks about and uses jails.”

The foundation, which is worth more than $6 billion and was created from the fortune of John D. MacArthur, is giving $75 million over five years to cities and counties across the country that submitted proposals to reduce their jail population. During an initial six-month phase, 20 selected jurisdictions will receive $150,000 each to work with consultants or staffers to gather and analyze data, train staff, upgrade technology, and develop a plan for eliminating “the overuse and misuse of jails.” Ten jurisdictions will go on to receive between $500,000 and $2 million annually for the challenge’s remaining years.

The effort targets a ballooning prison population that is widely viewed as a crisis. Between 1980 and 2013, the federal imprisonment rate increased 518 percent, the Pew Charitable Trust found in January. According to a February study by the Vera Institute of Justice, nearly 12 million people are taken to jail every year; 60 percent of them stay there only because they can’t afford bail.

Garduque says that MacArthur’s support will help different players in the criminal justice system work together to better understand who’s behind bars, how long they’re there, and what can be done to shorten their stay. Award recipients, she said, showed that they were already working toward similar goals but need more support.

“We are encouraged by the fact that there are jails across the country that have reduced their use of incarceration,” she said. “But many attempts are piecemeal and fragmented.”

For example, Garduque explained, in New York City, where the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice is a grantee, the number of people taken to jail has decreased over the years—but those who are in jail are staying for longer periods of time. Another grantee, the Office of Public Safety in Philadelphia, has seen expedited case processing help people convicted of misdemeanors get out of jail sooner, but it still takes “too long” for cases to go to trial, Garduque said.

But some activists who work on prison reform and prison-industrial-complex abolition say they’re skeptical that giving more money to judges, lawmakers, police, and government administrators is the way to reduce the nation’s use of incarceration.

“You don’t pay a corporation to downsize itself,” said Dan Berger, author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era and assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington, Bothell. “Incentivizing that process, especially by giving money to the very jail system you are trying to shrink, seems like the wrong way to go.”

Berger also disputed the idea that additional research is needed to know what policy choices will decrease the numbers of prisoners. Many prison activists have long argued that abolishing bail and pretrial detention, curbing police power, and eliminating many so-called “quality of life” laws against “loitering” or “soliciting” that target poor people and people of color would reduce jail and prison populations without costing a dime. He also noted that most “top-down approaches to prison reform,” including MacArthur’s Safety and Justice Challenge, don’t prioritize collaboration with formerly incarcerated people, their family members, or their advocates.

“We have been making all kinds of policy proposals, yet we are not included,” he said.

That may have something to do with newer prison reform efforts focusing on saving money. Since the economic recession of 2008, a growing number of politicians and criminal justice experts have complained about the high cost of locking increasing numbers of people behind bars. Even political players such as Hillary Clinton, the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC); and the Koch brothers now support versions of “prison reform” that move low-level offenders out of lockup and into government-contracted, privately run “community corrections” and “rehabilitation” programs run by corporations like GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

One result, says Berger, is a gradual mainstreaming of terms like “mass incarceration” and “overincarceration,” which characterize excess imprisonment as the problem, while often overlooking what some scholars and activists say is foundational racism in policing and imprisonment in the U.S. .

“We see politicians across the spectrum raising concerns for the first time in 40 years about the size of our prison state,” said author and attorney Michelle Alexander in 2013. “Yet I worry that so much of the dialogue is driven by financial concerns rather than genuine concern for the communities that have been most impacted and the families that have been destroyed.”

If reform efforts focus only on spending less, she added, “we’re going to find ourselves, years from now, either having a slightly downsized system of mass incarceration that continues to hum along pretty well, or some new system of racial and social control will have emerged again, because we have not learned the core lesson that our history is trying to teach us.”

It’s not just activists anymore who are calling for change. In March, the U.S. Department of Justice released a searing report on the criminal justice system in Ferguson, Missouri, finding that the city’s “police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias,” and that the court relied on arresting and fining residents to finance its operations. In the tumultuous months since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in August 2014, more than 100 bills related to police reform and community accountability were brought to the Missouri state legislature, Montague Simmons, an organizer with the St. Louis chapter of the Organization for Black Struggle, wrote in an article for Ebony.

Simmons found that only one of those proposed measures—a bill that set a cap on the percentage of the local operating budget that could come from traffic fines—had passed. The rest of his argument is worth quoting at length:

While that single bill is one step toward reducing the incentive for police to pull people over, lawmakers failed to address the underlying problems between Missouri police and the communities of color. The leadership in the legislature ignored the cries for justice from the people of Ferguson, and our vision for a police force and criminal justice system that, instead of criminalizing and undermining entire communities, creates trust by genuinely serving and protecting all of us.

Garduque said that the MacArthur Foundation chose St. Louis County as a Safety and Justice Challenge winner because it had “taken steps to address problems in the DOJ report” and its proposal had buy-in from many key officials, including top police brass and prosecutors—who had reached out to the University of Missouri in St. Louis for help.

The University of Missouri-St. Louis will help administer the MacArthur Challenge project in its region. Beth Huebner, professor of criminology and criminal justice, said that her team will be researching ways to release more people from pretrial detention—especially women with post-traumatic stress disorder and people whose main offense is not being able to pay child support.

According to Huebner, MacArthur grant money could be used to streamline the county’s 60-something court systems, standardize fine amounts, and implement technology to help residents more painlessly navigate the court system. She says that these changes could lead to less jail time for hundreds or even thousands of people. Yet, despite the DOJ’s findings, police bias and misconduct was not highlighted explicitly as an issue for the MacArthur project to examine.

Community groups had not been approached for input on the plan, but Garduque said that in the next phase of the project jurisdictions will be more competitive “if they are engaged in the communities and have stakeholders,” including current and former prisoners, involved. But the focus of the Safety and Justice Challenge is to work with the justice systems themselves, she said.

“We have to respect the justice systems because the very fabric of civil society will unravel if we don’t,” Garduque said. “The problems we’ve seen between law enforcement and communities of color, for instance, suggest that we really must attend to these issues. Right now these institutions are broken.”

But Berger says he’s unconvinced that top-down, budget-cinching approaches to prison reform will end the United States’ imprisonment woes.

“This is channeling popular and urgent critique into a very narrow fiscal set of decisions, stripping it of all its grassroots robustness, moral principles and vision, and shutting out the very people who need to be part of this: people in prison, their family members and loved ones,” Berger said.

Puck Lo wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Puck is a journalist who writes about gender, migration, economics, social movements, prison, and policing.