Published: July 2016
Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management staff reviewed this page prior to publication.
The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $783,000 over two years to the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ) at Harvard Kennedy School to support its work on reforms impacting young adults convicted of crimes. This grant will support staff, travel, and incidental costs for PCJ Senior Research Fellow Vincent Schiraldi’s work to provide thought leadership, technical support, and strategic advice for state-level reforms to treatment of young adults (roughly, 18- to 25-year-olds) in the criminal justice system.
Several states have proposed substantial reforms to how their criminal justice systems deal with young adults (for instance, raising the age of adult criminal responsibility to 21). We believe that there may currently be an opportunity for significant progress in this area.
This grant falls within our work on criminal justice reform, one of our focus areas within U.S. policy.
The Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ)’s primary activities are research, organizing convenings, and disseminating information publicly to advance the field of criminal justice reform. Since Bruce Western began serving as Faculty Director, PCJ has been particularly focused on research on reducing mass incarceration.
Mr. Schiraldi, who will lead this project, appears to us to be one of the foremost thinkers in this area, with extensive experience from his time serving as commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation. We believe Mr. Schiraldi is well positioned to support the advance of young adult reforms through work with government officials, advocates, academics, and other leaders around the country.
About the grant
Mr. Schiraldi plans to focus his activities on thought leadership and policy design. His thought leadership role may include:
- Providing testimony
- Organizing convenings
- Supporting the staff of elected officials in designing proposals
- Providing quotes for op-eds
- Sitting on official panels
- Data-sharing with advocates
In the policy arena, Mr. Schiraldi plans for his team to serve as a think tank for advocates and elected officials, which may involve:
- Drafting memos outlining policy options for state actors and supplying research that supports these options.
- Building connections between advocates and policymakers in different states to help shape the agenda.
- Reviewing and revising policy options in collaboration with local partners to create effective and workable proposals.
Our understanding is that resource constraints have previously limited PCJ’s ability to work on policy in this way.
Mr. Schiraldi will also supervise research assistants to gather data, research, and information on policy practices for court-involved young adults, nationally and internationally, in order to be able to respond to questions from the field. To our knowledge, PCJ is the only outlet gathering and disseminating this information at this level of depth.
Budget and room for more funding
Mr. Schiraldi’s work so far has principally been supported by a $400,000, three-year grant from the Arnold Foundation, which PCJ received last year. Our funding aims to allow Mr. Schiraldi to significantly expand his capacity and hire several new staff.
Case for the grant
We believe that state-level reforms of young adult punishment are likely to reduce incarceration, for a few reasons:
- As far as we know, it is uncontroversial among criminal justice experts that a large percentage of people incarcerated for serious offenses are first committed to prison as young adults. Mr. Schiraldi believes there is evidence that reforming admission practices for young adults has the potential to both reduce incarceration rates in the short-term and reduce the long-term chance that a given individual is ever incarcerated.
- The reforms that Mr. Schiraldi supports appear to us to have the potential for significant impact. For example, shifting young adults to the juvenile system would make them eligible for much shorter sentences and give them access to more rehabilitative services.
- Increasing public acceptance of the idea that young adults are still developing and can benefit from different interventions than older adults may help increase public support for less punitive criminal justice policies in general.
It is our impression that academic research has a track record of exerting significant influence on criminal justice policy over the past several decades. Examples include:
- In the 1970s, research by sociologist Robert Martinson (City University of New York) suggesting that prisoner rehabilitation efforts were ineffective led to significant national reductions in prison and parole rehabilitation programs.1
- In the early 1990s, research by John DiIulio (then at Princeton University) was frequently used by states as a basis for passing legislation to try more juveniles as adults, reduce confidentiality protections, or both.2
- PCJ’s Executive Session on Policing in the 1980s is credited with originating the idea for community policing, leading to the adoption of community policing programs around the country.3
- Scholarship by Michael Romano (Stanford University) served as the basis for California Proposition 36, which helped reduce the severity of some portions of California’s Three Strikes law.4
We believe that this grant could be highly cost-effective if it results in research or policy proposals with a chance of significantly influencing the field in this way.5
Risks and reservations
We see some risk that PCJ’s work may end up only providing further support for reforms that would have occurred regardless. However, Mr. Schiraldi believes (and we agree) that, without the convening hub that PCJ provides for individuals working on young adult reforms in various states and jurisdictions, the field as a whole would likely advance significantly more slowly.
Plans for learning and follow-up
Goals for the grant
One year from the start of this grant, PCJ aims to have partnered with advocates and/or policymakers in approximately four jurisdictions (states, counties, or cities) to introduce policy reforms that reduce incarceration rates and improve outcomes for young adults.
Key questions for follow-up
- What have PCJ’s main activities been at the state level? (This might include giving testimony, publishing papers, meeting with governors’ staff, etc.)
- What outcomes have occurred in states where PCJ has engaged?
- Is PCJ’s increased capacity sufficient? What has the increased capacity allowed PCJ to accomplish that it couldn’t have otherwise?
We expect to have a conversation with PCJ staff every six months for the duration of the grant, with public notes if the conversation warrants it. In particular, at the six-month mark, we plan to ask for an update on overall progress in the field of young adult reforms and may ask Mr. Schiraldi for suggestions of other potential places to invest to advance this work.
If it appears that the expanded capacity provided by this grant has allowed PCJ to work in more states or otherwise increase its impact, we believe it is likely that we would renew our grant. Because this is a two-year grant, we expect there to be adequate evidence to evaluate PCJ’s track record by that time.
Chloe Cockburn, our Program Officer for Criminal Justice Reform, was aware of Mr. Schiraldi’s work on this issue before joining the Open Philanthropy Project. In considering making this grant, she had several conversations with Mr. Schiraldi, reviewed some of his publications, and reached out to other leaders in the field to get their perspectives on PCJ’s role and effectiveness.
- “Martinson’s skepticism of the rehabilitation ideal derived from his role from 1968-1970 in a survey of American studies on offender rehabilitation. The researchers reviewed 231 evaluations conducted from 1945 to 1967. At this time it had long been assumed that rehabilitation and diversionary endeavours were crucial underpinnings of reform efforts. Martinson’s critique appeared to have destroyed this assumption. It was not long before the report became nicknamed, ‘Nothing Works!’ His conclusions were soon treated as fact.” Sarre 1999, Pg 2.
- “Moreover, a full fifteen years after the publication of ‘What Works?’, on January 18, 1989, the virtual abandonment of rehabilitation in corrections was confirmed by the US Supreme Court. In Mistretta v. United States, the Court upheld federal sentencing guidelines that had removed the goal of rehabilitation from serious consideration when sentencing offenders.” Sarre 1999, Pg 5.
- 2. “In 1995, John DiIulio, a professor at Princeton who coined the term ‘superpredator,’ predicted that the number of juveniles in custody would increase three-fold in the coming years and that, by 2010, there would be ‘an estimated 270,000 more young predators on the streets than in 1990.’…These predictions set off a panic, fueled by highly publicized heinous crimes committed by juvenile offenders, which led nearly every state to pass legislation between 1992 and 1999 that dramatically increased the treatment of juveniles as adults for purposes of sentencing and punishment.” Equal Justice Initiative 2014
- 3. “In the early 1980s, an executive session sponsored by NIJ and Harvard University…produced a number of papers and concepts that revolutionized policing. For example, it helped shape the community policing initiative, a problem-solving approach that asked officers to leave their patrol cars and build rapport with members of their communities. Community policing has since been widely adopted.” National Institute of Justice, Past Executive Session on Policing
- 4. “Michael Romano is the director and co-founder of the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project (formerly Three Strikes Project). He has been recognized as one of the top lawyers in California and has published several scholarly and popular press articles on criminal law and sentencing in the United States. As counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Mr. Romano co-authored the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 (‘Proposition 36’) and Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014 (‘Proposition 47’).” Stanford Law School Directory, Michael Romano
For example, see our back-of-the-envelope estimate of the cost-effectiveness of raising the minimum age of adult sentencing to 21, one of the reforms PCJ supports (note that this calculation is only included to share some of our thinking, so we have not included citations for the figures used):
Raising the minimum age of adult criminal responsibility to 21 would reduce the state prison population by roughly 7%. The average state combined jail and prison population is 44,000. Assuming that the benefits in terms of reduced incarceration last 10 years, this reform would avert roughly 30,000 person-years of incarceration per state. If a non-incarcerated person-year is valued at $50,000 (relative to a year of incarceration), and our grant provides roughly a 10% chance of reform in one state where it would not have occurred otherwise, then our grant of $783,000 would produce a roughly 200x return.
We find this kind of estimate helpful to give us a sense of scale and to expose some of our key assumptions, but are hesitant to place too much weight on it, given that we are highly uncertain about each of the inputs.