Authors Propose $1 Billion Philanthropic Bet Against Incarceration

Approximately 12 million Americans cycle through jails every year, with two million incarcerated at any given time. The figure represents one-quarter of the world’s population of incarcerated individuals despite the fact that the U.S. represents just 5 percent of the world’s overall population.

Philanthropic support of $1 billion geared toward incentivizing states and local jurisdictions to amend criminal justice polices to reduce incarceration and recidivism could both reduce government spending and have a four-fold return in personal income for those who avoid incarceration.

The Bridgespan Group of Boston, Mass., completed its Billion Dollar Bets series on how $1 billion could be spent on philanthropic initiatives with a deep-dive into over-criminalization. Bridgespan researchers, in the series of reports, concerned themselves with issues of structural inequality and racism and “over-criminalization was one of the explicit and overt manifestations of it,” according to co-author Devin Murphy.

Men age 23 and younger aren’t significantly more or less likely to be arrested based on race at 49 percent of African Americans, 44 percent of Latinos and 38 percent of Caucasians. But, the study cites a The Sentencing Project report highlighting the disparity when it comes to incarceration. An African American male born in 2001 has a 32-percent chance of spending time in prison compared to a 17-percent chance among Latino men and 6-percent chance for white men.

“This is not something that is against police,” said co-author Debby Bielak. “I think we want to have an equitable system whose goal is to reduce crime and support citizens in an equitable way…I think, for our democracy, having a criminal justice system and policing is important. We aren’t anti-criminal justice we just want a fair and equitable system.”

Due in part to the sensitivity and varying approaches to the issue of criminalization, Bridgespan’s researchers identified an incentive or prize-philanthropy model for addressing the problem. A whopping $930 million of the $1 billion projected expenditure would be placed in a national grant-based competition intended to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates. Another $60 million would be spent on collecting and analyzing hard data on incarceration in the U.S. and $10 million would be spent on an independent organization that would analyze the progress of grant recipients.

A similar model has been launched on a smaller scale by the MacArthur Foundation through its $75 million Safety and Justice Challenge, the authors said. Bielak said that Bridgespan is “tight on outcome, but open on approach” when it comes to potential ways states and jurisdictions could secure grants.

The authors provide a road map through the criminal justice system that offers up potential criteria grant applicants could pursue including revisions to state and local laws and policies, alternatives to incarceration, shifting away from punitive practices toward rehabilitation, and focusing on societal reentry practices and services. The Community Safety Partnership that grew out of the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Calif., is an example of such work already in practice, according to Murphy and Bielak.

The bet’s return on investment is projected based on Social Genome Model’s estimates of a $22,800 increase in lifetime family earnings for those who avoid conviction by the age of 19. Lifetime family earnings is a net present value calculation that equates to, in annualized terms, an $1,982 annual loss in earnings over about 30 years, according to a Bridgespan representative. African American males, by the age of 29, could see an estimated annual improved income of $10,240 as compared to $3,488 for non-black males.

The study identifies about 600,000 young people placed on probation, detention or formal release annually and supposes that if half of such individuals are reached by the program over a five-year span and between 12.5 and 25 percent of the reached individuals are able to avoid conviction, the 185,000 to 375,000 individuals could earn a combined $4.3 billion to $8.6 billion more in lifetime earnings than they otherwise would.

The study does not estimate the potential economic impact of jurisdictions enacting policies to move away from costly incarceration. The authors cited a U.S. Department of Justice report that tabbed the 2010 cost of federal and state incarceration at $80 billion.

The report is the final of six deep-dives into Bridgespan’s 15 Billion Dollar Bets. The intention of the series, according to Bielak, was to identify evidence-based ways large-scale philanthropy can break cycles of domestic poverty. Further research may be conducted in the future, Bielak said, though current efforts will be centered around communicating findings with various stakeholders – particularly philanthropists.