By David Plouffe, Head of Policy & Advocacy, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) has a big vision — to help build a better future for everyone. We know we can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s approaches, so our philanthropy looks a little different from most: we bring together world class engineering with policy, advocacy and grantmaking to help our partners tackle some of the most complex problems of our time.
Our Justice & Opportunity Initiative in particular aims to identify and break through the systemic barriers that keep so many people from achieving their full potential. We currently have teams working on housing affordability, immigration reform, and criminal justice reform, examining what justice and opportunity really look like in these spaces. We work in partnership with those most impacted by the issues to understand how barriers might be broken, so that our systems do a better job of lifting people up instead of holding them back.
In all my years working in politics and government, I’ve never encountered a system with more problems and in greater need of reform than the criminal justice system. Luckily, even on the heels of a deeply partisan election, this is one of the few issues that people from across the political aisle agree is in desperate need of new thinking. The new state legislatures starting in January have their work cut out for them.
Change from Within
In America today, there are 2.3 million people currently incarcerated and up to 100 million people carrying criminal records. These staggering numbers — which disproportionately represent the poor and communities of color — tell me not that the justice system is broken, but that it’s working as designed: to punish and incarcerate rather than rehabilitate. With nearly half of all children in the U.S. impacted by a parent with a criminal record, it’s clear that, without a dramatic shift, our nation’s failed experiment with mass incarceration will cast a long shadow on future generations.
The good news is that change is happening across the country.
Though the fight for reform isn’t new, there’s a rare moment right now where people from across the political spectrum, and from inside and outside the system, are working for change. A new wave of prosecutors is testing innovative approaches to enhance community safety while putting fewer people behind bars; formerly incarcerated people are mobilizing and making their voices heard in the push for reform; organizations are leveraging technology to help system actors make better-informed decisions; and state-based coalitions are challenging the harsh laws that contribute to mass incarceration, passing critical legislation that gives more people a fair chance.
At CZI, we want to help more people and organizations do more work like this, and we see an enormous opportunity to test and scale new tools and new models that will make practices in the justice system more equitable, accountable, responsive and data-driven.
Our collective commitment — as a diverse criminal justice team made up of former prosecutors, lawyers, nonprofit leaders, policy experts, community organizers, and engineers — is to collaborate with, and be the best possible partner to, those working on the front lines.
In this spirit, we made our first justice reform grants in 2017 to a group of organizations working to catalyze change across the system. Since then, our work has coalesced around three main areas:
Transforming Prosecution: Prosecutors today are the most powerful decision-makers in the criminal justice system. In an age where the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved through plea deals, prosecutors wield enormous power by deciding who to charge, what charges to bring, and what deals to offer. We’re working to drive a broad transformation in this space by supporting groups like Fair and Just Prosecution, Prosecutor Impact, and Public Rights Project, which offer unique approaches to shifting prosecutorial practices. CZI is also partnering with District Attorney’s offices – like Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner – to help them build data systems that drive more accountable, transparent, and informed decision-making. Our first criminal justice grant went to Measures for Justice, which tracks and compares justice system data at the county level, so that changemakers and system players can see what’s really happening in local courtrooms.
Expanding Opportunities for People with Criminal Convictions: Reimagining a justice system centered on community health and safety means creating fair chances for people with criminal records. We’re partnering with REDF (The Roberts Enterprise Development Fund) to tackle barriers to employment; the Prison University Project to help people get degrees while incarcerated; and a coalition of bipartisan groups working to advance Clean Slate legislation to help millions of people clear their criminal records and move on with their lives.
Expanding the Reform Movement & Reaching New Constituencies: Durable policy reform and culture shift requires a diverse and broad coalition of organizations and leaders. We’re working with JustLeadershipUSA, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, FWD.us, Alliance for Safety and Justice, the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, and others on a variety of state and local efforts. Finally, we’re proud to sponsor creative groups like Ear Hustle, a podcast produced by people currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison. We want the world to hear their stories.
The Road Ahead
As with any movement, the road to lasting reform is long, and the people who lay the first bricks don’t always get to see the destination. The same goes for reforming the way our country thinks about and serves justice. I’m deeply inspired by the changemakers who have been doing this work for years, even decades, and hope that CZI can help bring new and differentiated resources to help accelerate progress.
If anything is certain, it’s that we need a critical mass of action and innovation to reorient the criminal justice system toward something that keeps communities safe, that applies justice equitably, and that leaves those it touches with dignity and hope. We’re in this work for the long haul and are proud to partner with organizations that are leading the charge and the change.