Impact Justice — Restorative Justice Project (2019)

Grant investigator: Chloe Cockburn

This page was reviewed but not written by the grant investigator. Impact Justice staff also reviewed this page prior to publication.

Open Philanthropy recommended a grant of $4,000,000 over three years to Impact Justice to support its Restorative Justice Project, under the leadership of sujatha baliga. This project partners with local community organizations in cities around America to support the introduction of restorative justice diversion, before the filing of any charges in a case, to completely remove cases from the conventional justice system. The project focuses intensively in seven cities (growing to 10), and has created a toolkit and response capacity to support community leaders in many other locations to implement this solution to the question of how to address serious harm without prison. In the view of our criminal justice reform team, answering this question is key for progress in criminal justice reform, as a political and practical matter. Our criminal justice reform team believes this project is the only one in the United States to pilot restorative justice in multiple jurisdictions at once. This funding will support the project’s existing programs and facilitate its expansion into additional cities.

This follows our December 2016 support and falls within our focus area of criminal justice reform.

Impact Justice — Restorative Justice Project

Published: February 2017

Impact Justice staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $2,050,000 over three years to Impact Justice to support its Restorative Justice Project, led by sujatha baliga. Ms. baliga plans to use the grant to advocate for the restorative justice model, an alternative to the traditional criminal justice system, as a viable way to address harms that are currently addressed through incarceration. She plans to pursue this goal in two ways:

  1. Engaging in political consensus-building with a goal of laying the groundwork for 10 U.S. cities to institute restorative justice programs.
  2. Advocating for restorative justice at conferences, to the media, and with government officials at the state and federal level.

1. Background

1.1 Restorative justice

This grant falls within our work on criminal justice reform, one of our focus areas with U.S. policy.

We previously described the concept of restorative justice on a page about a grant to Common Justice:

Chloe Cockburn, our Program Officer for Criminal Justice Reform (“Chloe” throughout this page), describes the mainstream U.S. criminal justice model as addressing three key questions:

  1. Which law was broken?
  2. Who broke it?
  3. What punishment is appropriate?

By contrast, the restorative justice model asks:

  1. Who was harmed?
  2. What are the needs of those affected?
  3. Whose obligation is it to meet those needs?

The restorative justice model aims to identify constructive responses to crime and produce consensus-based plans to repair harm, meet victims’ needs, and rebuild relationships by fostering dialogue between a crime’s perpetrator (“responsible party”), victims (“harmed parties”), and the affected community.

Studies conducted on restorative justice programs so far suggest to us that restorative justice models may be a particularly cost-effective way to reduce recidivism.

Chloe also believes that restorative justice might have the additional benefit of increasing reporting of crime. Anecdotal evidence from restorative justice programs suggests that victims may use restorative justice alternatives, where these are available, in cases where they would not use the traditional criminal justice system. A large percentage of crimes, especially violent crimes, currently go unreported: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of violent crimes were not reported from 2006 to 2010, with the biggest reason for non-reporting being that the victim dealt with the offense in another way.1
This suggests to us that some victims of crime may not see the criminal justice system as an appropriate mechanism for dealing with violent offenses.

1.2 The grantee

Impact Justice is a national innovation and research center founded in 2015 by a group of criminal justice experts leading projects that focus on demonstrating alternatives to the current criminal justice system. The vice president and director of Impact Justice’s Restorative Justice Project, sujatha baliga, is a national leader in the field of restorative justice.

2. About the grant

2.1 Proposed activities

Ms. baliga plans to use this grant to fund two main activities:

  1. Building the political consensus necessary to institute restorative justice programs in 10 U.S. cities by meeting with influential people, such as officials in the criminal justice system and political decisionmakers, who are able to increase acceptance of restorative justice. This activity is expected to make up the majority of the work involved in this grant.
  2. Advocating for restorative justice at conferences, to the media, and with government officials at the state and federal level.

2.2 Case for the grant

We see this grant as a strong opportunity to support restorative justice based on the following:

  • We hope that this grant will enable Ms. baliga and her team to make the case for restorative justice as a politically feasible alternative to incarceration by convincing officials in the 10 targeted cities to try this approach. It seems plausible to us that building support for restorative justice in these cities will increase the likelihood that this method will become widely accepted as a viable alternative. We are excited about this grant as an opportunity to have a long-term impact on the adoption of restorative justice; we put less weight on the direct impact of the new restorative justice programs on their participants.
  • Ms. baliga has shared two examples that demonstrate her track record of creating political will around restorative justice:
    1. She facilitated a restorative justice case in Tallahassee, FL, in which the district attorney (DA) was, at the time, strongly opposed to the idea of using restorative justice. She recently learned that this DA is running for higher office and is including restorative justice in his platform.
    2. She ran a restorative juvenile diversion program in Alameda County, CA. The managing DA in Alameda County was strongly opposed to restorative justice when the program started; after long-term engagement with Ms. baliga, he has offered to go to Nashville to encourage the line attorneys at the Nashville DA’s office to embrace restorative justice.
  • We have had several conversations with people who we believe have deep knowledge of the restorative justice field, who were supportive of Ms. baliga’s work in this space.

2.3 Risks and reservations

Based on an evaluation of the program in Alameda County, which found a positive impact of restorative justice on reducing recidivism,2 and preliminary results of a randomized controlled trial of Ms. baliga’s work, we are not concerned that her model might cause harm compared to the baseline of imprisonment.

3. Plans for follow-up

After the first year of the grant period, we plan to begin evaluating the progress of the grant by looking for the following markers of success:

  • Attempts by criminal justice officials to bring in practitioners from other places to work with them on further developing the concept of restorative justice.
  • Public statements of support for restorative justice.
  • Increasing use of language related to restorative justice.
  • Political partners on restorative justice work stepping forward as champions or allies on other types of local criminal justice reform.
  • Public recognition by federal-level system leaders that restorative justice is a viable and desirable alternative to incarceration.

3.1 Goals for the grant

We have two main goals for this grant:

  1. To advance restorative justice as a potential alternative to incarceration in the long term. In particular, we believe that restorative justice could be a useful alternative in the types of cases that are unlikely to benefit from the current political consensus on the need for drug law and mental health reform. Our understanding is that restorative justice has been shown to work best in the serious and violent cases for which most other criminal justice reform efforts have failed.
  2. To change the political culture in the targeted jurisdictions to be more open to criminal justice reform in general.

3.2 Key questions for follow-up

  • How many key stakeholders is Impact Justice engaging in each location? How far along are they in the process of accepting restorative justice as a viable alternative?
  • Has Impact Justice observed spillover effects from its local restorative justice work?
  • What progress has been made on national advocacy?
  • What progress has been made on interactions with the federal government?

3.3 Internal forecasts

We’re experimenting with recording explicit numerical forecasts of events related to our decisionmaking (especially grantmaking). The idea behind this is to pull out the implicit predictions that are playing a role in our decisions and make it possible for us to look back on how well-calibrated and accurate those are. For this grant, we are recording the following forecasts:

  • 10% chance that we will consider this grant a cost-effective success in one year.
  • 70% chance that this grant will play an important role in getting traction for the concept of restorative justice on a national level over the next three years.

3.4 Deciding whether to renew the grant

By the end of the three-year grant period, we expect to have good information on the success of the grant. It is likely that we will want to renew the grant if:

  1. Ms. baliga has built a strong platform for restorative justice work and is gaining traction and attention.
  2. Stakeholders in the targeted jurisdictions are signing on to support the restorative justice programs.

4. Our process

Over the past year, Chloe Cockburn, our Program Officer for Criminal Justice Reform, has spoken with several people to learn about this grant opportunity. This includes many conversations (via phone calls, emails, and in-person meetings) with Ms. baliga and Alex Busansky, the president of Impact Justice, to get a sense of what options are available for advancing restorative justice and what role the Open Philanthropy Project could play in this work. Chloe was aware of Ms. baliga’s work before she began working at the Open Philanthropy Project. Our investigation of the grant also included conversations with others who we see as deeply knowledgeable about restorative justice, who spoke positively of Ms. baliga’s suitability for this work and of her leadership.

5. Sources

Langton et al. 2012 Source (archive)
National Council on Crime and Delinquency 2015 Source (archive)