Alliance for Safety and Justice — General Support

CSJ staff member Aswad Thomas (left) explains how to file a petition to have an old felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor under Proposition 47 at a record change fair in LA in September 2015 (photo courtesy of ASJ)
Organization Name 
Award Date 
2/2016
Grant Amount 
$1,750,000
Purpose 
To support the Alliance for Safety and Justice
Topic (focus area) 

Published: February 2016

Note: this page summarizes the rationale behind two grants: 1) a grant that the Open Philanthropy Project made to the Alliance for Safety and Justice, 2) a personal gift that Cari Tuna made to Vote Safe.

ASJ staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ) is a national organization seeking to reduce overreliance on incarceration in states across the U.S. and to promote new safety priorities rooted in community health and well-being. It aims to build off and scale up the success of Californians for Safety and Justice (CSJ), a state-based advocacy and policy reform organization that, among other accomplishments, developed the first statewide network for crime victims that support justice reform. Vote Safe, the sister 501(c)(4) organization of CSJ, also crafted and ran the successful campaign for Proposition 47, a California ballot measure that reduced incarceration by changing several low-level felonies to misdemeanors, and reallocating the prison cost savings to prevention and treatment.1

Building off these successes, ASJ aims to partner with state-based advocates across the county to expand state-based capacity to advance justice reform, launch a national networking center for state advocacy, and build public support for new safety priorities that can reduce over-incarceration while improving community health and well-being.

We believe that ASJ’s approach – to act as a national organization coordinating state-level efforts – may be able to help translate increased national attention towards criminal justice reform into major policy victories at the state level.

The Open Philanthropy Project made a $1.75 million grant via Tides to help launch ASJ’s 501(c)(3) arm, and Cari Tuna personally gave $250,000 to the 501(c)(4), Vote Safe.

Rationale for the grant

The cause

Criminal justice reform is one of our focus areas within the category of U.S. policy. Although we consider criminal justice reform to be an unusually tractable cause within U.S. policy, our understanding is that most states (excepting California and New York) have seen only slight decreases in incarceration as a result of reform campaigns. We believe this may be due in part to limited state-level capacity; in many states, there does not appear to exist an organization focused on reducing over-incarceration with the capacity to advance policy reform or run successful campaigns.

In addition, the public may not have a clear understanding of what changes could be made to the current criminal justice system beyond simply reducing incarceration. Our impression is that this lack of a clear vision for safety could make reform efforts vulnerable to collapse in the face of shifts in crime, strong pushback by criminal justice reform opponents, or simply waning attention on the issue, any of which may or may not come into play.

The organization

Our intention with this grant is to help ASJ to build off the success of Californians for Safety and Justice (CSJ) (which will continue to exist, and will act as the flagship for the growth and development of ASJ). CSJ’s sister 501(c)(4) organization, Vote Safe, led the campaign to pass Proposition 47, a ballot measure that according to one study resulted in 13,000 fewer incarcerated people in California in the first year after its passing.2 ASJ has told us that the measure is also estimated to give nearly one million Californians an opportunity to remove nonviolent felonies from their criminal records and access new opportunities for stability.

Led by Lenore Anderson and Robert Rooks (both also leaders of CSJ), ASJ will be a national organization focused on building capacity for state-based advocacy, advancing policy reform in its partner states, and gaining majority support nationwide for new safety priorities focused on community health and well-being.

ASJ’s overall policy focuses are sentencing reform and reallocation of resources from prison spending to community safety and health (similar to the “justice reinvestment” approach about which we have written in more detail in our cause report on criminal justice reform).

Organizational strategies

ASJ plans to work toward its goals using three different strategies, each of which will require dedicated staff.

  • Strategy 1: developing state-based capacity and advancing state-based justice reform. ASJ plans to choose several “partner states,” where it will partner with local advocates and provide strategic support for an extended period. The partnership will provide capacity-building support to advance justice reform, aiming to significantly reduce prison populations and over-spending on corrections. ASJ will choose policy objectives in these states that it believes to be viable, impactful, and consistent with public safety.
  • Strategy 2: launching a national networking center for state advocacy. ASJ intends to launch a national networking center to provide policy development and networking support to states, thus strengthening advocacy institutions in states beyond those partner states that are the focus of Strategy 1. As part of this strategy, ASJ plans to create a national website, convene conferences, and conduct trainings.
  • Strategy 3: building support for new safety priorities. Building on its continuing experience with CSJ, ASJ aims to promote a new set of safety priorities to replace over-incarceration with a focus on community health and well-being. It intends to do so by commissioning public opinion research, producing reports, engaging in public education, and securing media coverage of its policy aims. ASJ also plans to organize a constituency of crime survivors across the country in support of criminal justice reform.

Organizational track record and leadership

Chloe Cockburn, our Program Officer for Criminal Justice Reform, has a very positive view of ASJ’s leadership and their track record with CSJ. Our perspective on ASJ’s leadership is based to a large extent on Chloe’s view and contributes significantly to our expectations of ASJ as an organization.

  • Under the leadership of Anderson and Rooks, CSJ scaled up from having a budget of $2 million and one staffer, to a budget of $5.5 million and a staff of 15, within three years. CSJ leadership also launched its 501(c)(4) sister organization, Vote Safe, that ran the Yes on Proposition 47 campaign, which had a budget of $10 million and which we consider to be a strong success.
  • CSJ has also developed a network of crime victims that support criminal justice reform, including starting a network called Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice.
  • In addition to leading and expanding CSJ, Anderson and Rooks have substantial experience in areas which Chloe believes will be helpful to them at ASJ. This includes Anderson’s experience with leadership and management, in political settings, and as a former prosecutor, and Rooks’ experience with community organizing and building alliances.

Long-term hopes for the grant

We are highly uncertain what to expect in terms of ASJ’s long-term development. ASJ’s plans are very ambitious, and the landscape for criminal justice reform could change considerably over the next 10 years. However, based on ASJ’s plans, and assuming ASJ meets its first-year funding target of around $10 million, we think the following is an optimistic but plausible projection for the grant:

  • In the first year, ASJ emerges as a major national entity with a clear strategic vision for advancing state criminal justice policy reform. ASJ works in five partner states, with two state advocacy reform efforts or campaigns in development.
  • After five years, ASJ works with 15 partner states and is involved in four campaigns, with two successful campaigns already completed. ASJ will have reframed the national debate on new safety priorities, and will have created an active new safety constituency (survivors of crime) that organizes to change state policies. ASJ will have built a new national consensus that there is no correlation between extreme sentencing and public safety.
  • After ten years, there is a reduction in incarceration in a majority of states. There is also a reallocation of public resources to new safety priorities as well as a general public attitude that mass incarceration should “never again” be the norm.

Room for more funding

ASJ has told us that it could effectively use up to $10 million in its first year, though it could operate on as little as $2 million. ASJ would use additional funds beyond $2 million to take on more partner states and scale up its communication work.

We believe there are a number of other funders interested in providing lower levels of support to ASJ. However, our impression is that foundations’ priorities often do not lie in capacity building and that they may not choose to support long-term strategic advocacy plans to change entrenched systems. As a result, we believe that these funders might not provide the level of support that ASJ (or we) think is appropriate.

Risks and reservations about this grant

We have a number of reservations regarding this grant:

  • Compared to CSJ’s previous work, ASJ’s plan is very ambitious, requiring it to take on new kinds of work, more than double its number of staff, and expand beyond California to states throughout the U.S. We find it plausible that ASJ may not expand to its planned size or reach, though we are very uncertain to what extent this might occur.
  • It may take a significant period of time for ASJ to hire staff and become fully operational, during which time state-level conditions could potentially change in a way that reduces ASJ’s potential to effect change. We do not think this is particularly likely to be a major issue.
  • ASJ may have underestimated the time/capacity it will take to work in each partner state, which may mean it is able to work in fewer states than planned.
  • If ASJ has trouble fundraising its ideal budget, the organization may not be able to achieve all of its current goals.

Plans for follow-up

Follow-up expectations

We expect these grant funds to be used within roughly the next year. During this time, we expect to have a conversation with ASJ staff every 2-3 months, with public notes if the conversation warrants it.

Key questions for follow-up

Questions we plan to try to answer about this grant include:

  • How many partner states is ASJ working with after one year? In each of these partner states, how is ASJ’s relationship with its partner organization? What progress has been made in each partner state toward justice reform?
  • How much progress has been made in developing a national networking center for state advocacy?
  • What has ASJ done to build support for new safety priorities? Have these activities been effective?
  • Have any unforeseen needs or challenges arisen regarding the infrastructure of the organization? How have ASJ’s activities differed from its original plan?
  • What lessons can we learn from ASJ and its approach to starting a new large organization? This is a relatively novel kind of philanthropy for us, and we expect that we will learn something about how to assess future opportunities to help start new organizations.

Sources

Document Source
The New York Times 2015 Source (archive)
  • 1. “Until recently, California locked up more people per capita than any other state. It has been under federal court order since 2009 to bring its severely overcrowded prison system below 137.5 percent of capacity, or about 114,000 inmates. It met that modest goal in February, thanks in part to a 2014 ballot initiative that reclassified six low-level offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies.

    The initiative, Proposition 47, was expected to lead to the release of thousands of inmates, and cut new admissions by about 3,300 per year. It also required that the cost savings — estimated to be more than $150 million this year — be reinvested into anticrime services like drug rehabilitation, antitruancy efforts and mental health treatment. Victims’ services receive funding, too.” The New York Times 2015.

  • 2. “The most easily measurable impact is on the state’s prison and county jail population, which has fallen by about 13,000, with more than 4,400 prison inmates released by the end of September.” The New York Times 2015.