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.
1.1 The organization
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.
2. About the grant
2.1 Proposed activities
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.
2.2 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.
2.3 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
2.4 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.
3. Plans for learning and follow-up
3.1 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.
3.2 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?
3.3 Follow-up expectations
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.
4. Our process
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.