Our Criminal Justice Reform Program Is Now an Independent Organization: Just Impact

by evelynciara3 min read17th Nov 20213 comments

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Org updateOpen PhilanthropyCriminal justice reformJust Impact
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Open Phil just announced that they're spinning off their criminal justice reform program, headed by Chloe Cockburn, into an independent organization! I've reproduced the entire announcement below, subject to Open Phil's Creative Commons license.


Today, we’re making three announcements:

  1. After hundreds of grants totaling more than $130 million over six years, one of our first programs – criminal justice reform (CJR) – is becoming an independent organization.
  2. The team that had been leading our CJR program, Chloe Cockburn and Jesse Rothman, is transitioning to Just Impact, which describes itself as “a criminal justice reform advisory group and fund that is focused on building the power and influence of highly strategic, directly-impacted leaders and their allies to create transformative change from the ground up”.
  3. We are helping to launch Just Impact with approximately $50 million in seed funding spread over 3.5 years.

We’ve had internal discussions around the possibility of a different structure for more than a year, and have spent the past few years continuing to search for new potential causes that might yield cost-effective giving opportunities. That has led to some important updates:

  • As we wrote in 2019, we think the top global aid charities recommended by GiveWell (which we used to be part of and remain closely affiliated with) present an opportunity to give away large amounts of money at higher cost-effectiveness than we can achieve in many programs, including CJR, that seek to benefit citizens of wealthy countries. Accordingly we’re shifting the focus of future grantmaking from our Global Health and Wellbeing portfolio (which CJR has been part of) further towards the types of opportunities outlined in that post – specifically, efforts to improve and save the lives of people internationally (including things like distributing insecticide-treated bednets to prevent the spread of malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa, and fighting air pollution in South Asia).
  • At the same time, we have been impressed with the CJR team’s work, which we believe has significantly influenced the field’s priorities, attracted other major donors, and contributed to some notable wins. Rather than shutting down the portfolio entirely, we are instead helping to launch Just Impact so Chloe and her team can continue to make grants that seek to safely reduce incarceration. We hope that other donors interested in criminal justice reform in the United States will join.
  • The $50 million seed grant to Just Impact is intended to support work for 3.5 years. We will continue to follow progress and continually revisit the right level of support in light of both Just Impact’s impact and our understanding of our alternative giving opportunities, and may continue our support beyond this initial seed grant. It is important to us to make this transition in a way that positions the CJR work to maintain its successes, navigate the transitional period smoothly, and hopefully raise enough from other funders to have even more impact in the future.

Additionally, we think there are other advantages to a spinout:

  • This is a natural progression for the CJR program and Chloe, who has partnered with other donors for several years, providing advice and supporting donors to make effective investments in criminal justice reform. We believe that an independent organization will allow Chloe to build on that work, and we hope Just Impact will be attractive to donors who want to support these important efforts.
  • Independence will also better position Just Impact to implement its vision and strategy.
  • More generally, we see this as a valuable experiment for Open Philanthropy. In the long run, we could imagine that the optimal structure for us is to focus on cause selection and incubation of new programs, regularly spinning out mature programs in order to give them more autonomy as we focus on our core competency of cause selection and resource allocation. We hope to learn about the costs and benefits of that approach from Just Impact’s experience.

We’re grateful for and proud of all the work Chloe and Jesse have done, and we believe criminal justice reform remains an important, valuable, and broadly underfunded cause. For donors interested in criminal justice reform in the United States, we think that the Just Impact team is a strong bet, and we hope Just Impact’s strong work will spark substantial commitments from other donors. We’re excited to see what Just Impact will be able to achieve in the coming years!

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This is great to see, a huge congratulations to everyone involved!

Side note: Sorry for a totally inane nitpick, but I was curious about the phrasing in your opening line:

Mass incarceration in America has devastated communities, particularly communities of color: 1 in 2 Americans has a family member who’s been incarcerated, 1 in 4 women in America have a loved one in jail or prison, and millions of children have a parent in prison.

From a glance at Wikipedia, US incarceration rates are 7.5x higher for males, or within Black adults, 16.7x higher for males.

So I guess I'm confused by the decision to highlight the impact of mass incarceration on women. Sorry if that's a dumb question, just hoping to understand this better.

It also seems like a very high fraction! According to a quick google, 1.8m/330m ~=  0.5% of the US population is in prison or jail. Typically when people say 'loved one[s]' they mean close relatives; presumably that is generally fewer than 50 people. So even if they were non-overlapping (which seems unlikely as criminality/incarceration runs in families) I'd expect this to apply to fewer than 1/4 women.

I tried to track down the source of this stat. It appears it might (?) come from Hedwig (2015)'s analysis of data from 2006, which in turn attributes it to 'figure not shown'. I tried to reverse engineer the stat from table 3, which suggests that (6,363,170+11,226,655)/(14,461,749+93,555,459) = 16% of women have a family member in prison (though it's possible I mis-read the table). I think there is something strange with the data; even though humans have basically gender-balanced families only 9% of men reported having a family member in prison! Additionally, more black women report having a family member in prison than 'anyone they are acquainted with', even though presumably they are acquainted with their family. It's possibly people were using very generous definitions of who is a family member - e.g. having a second cousin you never talk to in prison - but then I am skeptical these could reasonably be described as 'loved ones'.

Haha, I didn't write this! I don't know why they emphasized that either.