Not long ago, after more than two decades of “tough on crime” policies at the national level and in many states, elected officials and advocates from across the political spectrum seemed to be coalescing around the realization that our justice system was broken. Some noted the exorbitant financial cost of imprisoning so many people. Others cited the injustice inherent in the disparate treatment of people of color, especially for non-violent drug offenses. The strange bedfellows of this emerging bipartisan alliance were best exemplified by former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Democratic activist Van Jones. They teamed up as advocates of reform.
Some of the drive for change at the federal level has dissipated, however, with the arrival of the Trump administration’s return to “tough” policies. Consequently, as with many issues, action on reform has shifted to the states. And I am pleased to say that The George Gund Foundation has been an active funder of reform efforts.
Reform is certainly needed in Ohio, which has the sixth highest rate of incarceration in the country. Annually, there are nearly 400,000 Ohioans involved with the jail and prison systems. There are 50,000 state inmates in prisons designed to hold 38,000. Ohio’s prison population is 49% African-American even though African-Americans are only 12% of the state’s overall population.
Adding to the upward pressure on Ohio’s incarceration rate is the fact that more than 9% of those imprisoned are now held in facilities run by businesses for profit. Private prison operators are often among the most vocal opponents of criminal justice reform and are significant contributors to elected officials.
The financial burden of mass incarceration is staggering. The annual budget of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections now exceeds $1.8 billion. And the annual cost to detain a youth in one of the state’s juvenile facilities is now over $185,000 per year, nearly 20 times the annual tuition at Cleveland State University.
Our Foundation’s signature grants in this domain have been to support an encouraging new partnership, the Ohio Transformation Fund (OTF), which is designed to tackle pressing economic and social justice issues. Its initial goal is to identify and address systemic inequities in Ohio’s criminal justice system, focusing particularly on the reduction of the number and racial disparity of people incarcerated in the state.
The animating principle behind the OTF is that systemic change is possible when policy changes are driven by highly capable advocates in tandem with knowledgeable community members who have experienced the impact of inequities and who are actively engaged in the policymaking and electoral processes. This is an especially important year because landmark gains will occur if Ohio’s voters approve the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods amendment to the state constitution. Under the leadership of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, the Ohio Justice and Policy Center and the Alliance for Safety and Justice, intense efforts are well underway with the aid OTF and a cadre of national and Ohio-based supporters to bring to the ballot a strong package of reforms emphasizing community-based treatment, not prison, for non-violent drug offenders.
I am proud to note that among the supporters of this ballot issue is the Art for Justice Fund, launched by my sister Agnes Gund from the sale of art from her collection. She has since been joined by many others.
Important additional justice reform efforts have been advanced by Gund Foundation grants to the ACLU of Ohio to help reduce practices that criminalize poverty by overhauling Cuyahoga County’s inequitable system of cash bail which locks up many people who simply cannot afford to post a bond. In order to attack injustice in the juvenile justice system, for more than a decade we have focused investments on five reform strategies: policy research, policy advocacy, development of evidence-based alternatives to confinement, building local provider capacity and litigation. This work has been propelled through the legal action of the Children’s Law Center and a tight-knit collaboration of organizations driving policy reform, including the Juvenile Justice Coalition, and the Schubert Center for Child Studies and Center for Innovative Practice, both at Case Western Reserve University. The determined work of our grantees has generated remarkable reforms, including the closure of four state facilities and a nearly two-thirds reduction in the state youth prison population since its peak.
Progress is being made but much work is still to be done. We intend to continue it, hoping that the work of our many partners will contribute to a movement that eventually turns the national tide.