Vera Institute of Justice — Criminal Justice Reform Report

Grant investigator: Chloe Cockburn
This page was reviewed but not written by the grant investigator. Vera Institute of Justice staff also reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $50,000 to the Vera Institute of Justice to create a report on the state of safety and justice reform, which it hopes will function as a guide to help people outside the criminal justice reform movement (including new funders, allies, academics, and business leaders) to orient themselves to the field. The Vera Institute of Justice also plans to give 4-6 presentations in order to broaden the set of people engaged in criminal justice reform. This is a seed grant intended to help the Vera Institute of Justice raise the remaining funding it will need to create the report and fund launch events.

This is a discretionary grant.

Vera Institute of Justice — New Orleans User-Funded Justice System

Image courtesy of the Vera Institute of Justice


Vera staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $100,000 to the Vera Institute of Justice’s New Orleans office (Vera) to support its research into and cost-benefit analysis of New Orleans’s user-funded justice system. Vera will examine the imposition of financial bail as a condition of pretrial release, the assessment of fines and fees at sentencing, and the relationship between these practices and the number of people in jail.

The issue of bail, fine and fee policies resulting in jail time for people who are unable to pay (see this video explanation created by Vera) appears to us to have recently been gaining attention and traction. Several lawsuits have successfully challenged the practice of detaining people pretrial because of an inability to pay bail or jailing people because they are unable to pay a fine or fee. However, our impression is that national and local discussions have so far lacked high-quality data and in-depth analyses on the extent to which bail, fines and fees drive local jail populations. This grant will support Vera’s New Orleans office to analyze the costs to tax payers and the toll it takes on mostly low-income defendants, then put forward a set of actionable recommendations for reform.

Vera Institute of Justice — Common Justice

Photo courtesy of Common Justice

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $8,000 to the Vera Institute to support Common Justice.

Common Justice, a Brooklyn-based project of the Vera Institute, develops and promotes solutions to violent crime that focus on improving outcomes for victims and holding people accountable for harm without relying on incarceration. We wrote more about the organization on our page about our previous grant to Common Justice.

This is a “no-process” grant. For no-process grants, the grant investigator (in this case Chloe Cockburn, our Program Officer for Criminal Justice Reform) can recommend the grant without needing to go through our normal process of providing their reasoning, discussing with the team, and providing input on and review of our public page. These grants are limited to a relatively small proportion of our grantmaking, and some other stipulations apply to what types of grant are eligible. The overall aim is for us to be able to move forward on relatively small and low-risk grants, based purely on the judgment of a single staff member and with minimal delay. In keeping with the lack of process, we don’t plan to publish in-depth pages about the reasoning behind these grants.

Vera Institute of Justice — Common Justice

Photo courtesy of Common Justice

Common Justice staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $200,000 to the Vera Institute of Justice to support Common Justice.

Common Justice, a Brooklyn-based project of the Vera Institute, develops and promotes solutions to violent crime that focus on improving outcomes for victims and holding people accountable for harm without relying on incarceration. Locally, Common Justice operates the first alternative-to-incarceration and victim service program in the United States that focuses on violent felonies in the adult courts, using a restorative justice approach. Nationally, Common Justice applies lessons from its direct service to inform discussions about how to transform the justice system.

We see both Common Justice and its director, Danielle Sered, as important voices in the broader national conversation around violent crime policy.

To support a planned expansion of its activities, Common Justice needs more space and staff. By supporting this expansion, we hope to allow Common Justice to 1) increase outreach and promotion of its ideas, and 2) scale up its intervention program so that its effectiveness can be studied more robustly.

1. Background

1.1 Restorative Justice

Criminal justice reform is one of the Open Philanthropy Project’s focus areas within U.S. Policy.

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.1

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.2 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 Common Justice’s program

Common Justice is the only post-indictment diversion program in the U.S. that focuses on adults charged with violent felonies. Common Justice identifies prospective cases through defense attorneys, prosecutors, and by a systematic review of all new indictments from the court calendar. Once both the prosecutor and harmed party agree to it, the case is diverted to Common Justice. About 90% of the victims approached by Common Justice to participate in the program as an alternative to the defendant being incarcerated in prison say yes.

Common Justice brings the responsible party and harmed party into dialogue to identify and address the crime’s impact, the harmed party’s needs, and the responsible party’s obligations. Through this process, all parties agree on sanctions in place of incarceration to hold the responsible party accountable. Typical sanctions may include community service, rehabilitative and educational programming, violence intervention classes, or financial restitution, among other sanctions unique to each case. Common Justice staff closely monitor the responsible party’s compliance with these sanctions. When the responsible party has completed the program, the felony is removed from their record.

Common Justice also connects harmed parties with appropriate services to meet their needs. Common Justice’s program is unusual among programs we are aware of in its emphasis on serving the needs of young men of color harmed by violence (70% of Common Justice’s harmed parties are men of color). In addition to providing these direct services, Common Justice has launched a national learning collaborative for service providers working with young men of color harmed by violence, which currently includes more than 50 organizations nationwide and is growing.

Since 2015, Common Justice’s work has begun to gain national attention. For example:

  • Danielle Sered published a brief on young men of color harmed by violence3
  • Common Justice was featured on NPR and in the New Yorker45
  • Sered was a featured speaker at an Atlantic Summit on race and justice6

    Danielle Sered

    Common Justice’s director, Danielle Sered, is a criminal justice reform and victims’ advocate. She has been a member of a number of criminal justice working groups and councils at the state and national levels and spoken at criminal justice conferences. Sered has spent several years developing an account of how the criminal justice system views and responds to violence; Chloe believes that the broader criminal justice field is recognizing the need for such an account and looking for leadership. A significant part of Chloe’s belief in the potential impact of this grant is based on her impression of Sered as a highly effective advocate and leader on these issues.

    2. About the grant

    2.1 Case for the grant

    We decided to invest in Common Justice for the following reasons:

  • Given that around half of people incarcerated are in prison after being convicted of violent offenses,7 we believe that finding means to address violence without resorting to incarceration will be necessary if incarceration rates are to fall substantially.
  • Our current best guess, based on a preliminary look at the existing (early) literature on restorative justice, is that restorative justice as applied by Common Justice is the most promising alternative to the standard criminal justice process for offenses involving harm to a person.
  • Chloe’s strong impression is that most system actors, politicians, and members of the public have a hard time imagining that something other than prison can work for violent offenses. Being the only alternative to incarceration program for serious violent offenses that we know of in the country, Common Justice is an approach that we believe has the potential to open up the space of possibilities.
  • Our understanding is that crime survivors often value healing and access to services as much as or even instead of sending the responsible party to prison. Accordingly, we believe that Common Justice’s emphasis on identifying and responding to the needs of victims is not only a smart strategy to show how options that aren’t based on incarceration could look, but also could increase wellbeing of victims. Chloe’s understanding is that victims’ voices are given a particularly strong weight in the criminal justice discourse, and that historically, the voices of victims who support severe punishment have been most consistently emphasized.
  • Chloe sees Danielle Sered’s analysis of the U.S.’s current social response to violence as especially nuanced, and believes that increasing Sered’s ability to share that analysis is an important part of moving the field forward.

    2.2 Proposed activities

    2.2.1 Strategic communications outreach

    We see this grant’s primary value in allowing Common Justice to expand its capacity in order to share its ideas with a wider audience. (We believe this is likely to be more impactful overall than the scale up in Common Justice’s direct impact, i.e., increasing the number of people served by its particular program.) Common Justice proposes to do outreach in the next year to advance local and national policy discussions on responses to violent crime. In particular, Common Justice aims to promote an understanding of restorative justice programs, foster support for alternatives to incarceration for violent offenses (rather than only for low-level offenses), and work to support alternatives that address violence more effectively than prison does. By starting a national discussion about appropriate responses to violence that involves advocates, policy makers, and impacted communities, Common Justice’s outreach has the potential to lay the groundwork for the development of new and even more effective interventions and policy reforms.

    Potential channels for Common Justice’s communications outreach include:

    • Common Justice’s national learning collaborative of service providers
    • Securing media about the issues at stake in Common Justice’s work
    • Convenings of high-profile stakeholders to discuss these issues
    • Common Justice taking on a leadership role in regional and national criminal justice coalitions
    • Speaking engagements

    2.2.2 Scale up of Common Justice’s intervention program

    Common Justice’s intervention program is currently in the research and evaluation phase. One aim of this grant is to allow Common Justice to continue scale up its program, without which there cannot be a robust study of its impact.

    However, even if studies of Common Justice’s scaled up program show worse recidivism outcomes than for incarceration (a result Chloe believes is highly unlikely), or other ways in which Common Justice’s program is not the best intervention, Chloe believes this grant would still be a worthwhile investment. Her take is that studies of Common Justice’s program, whatever the results, will better position the field as a whole to design better programs, and that it is valuable to promote the idea that this type of intervention has the potential to be very cost-effective, separately from the details of this particular program.

    2.3 Budget and room for more funding

    We expect this unrestricted grant to be used to help pay for the lease on Common Justice’s expanded office space. Common Justice has told us that this has been a difficult thing to find funding for, potentially because other funders are more interested in funding projects and program than infrastructure. The grant is structured as unrestricted funding so that the organization may also choose to use it in other ways.

    2.4 Risks and offsetting factors

    • It may be difficult for Common Justice, as a local, New York-based organization, to distribute its ideas to the rest of the country. Success will depend on other advocates in the field paying attention and being able to translate Common Justice’s ideas successfully to their own situations.
    • Studies of the scaled-up program with more participants may not show strong results.
    • As with any program implementing an alternative to incarceration, there is some risk that a participant may commit a new offense, which could provoke backlash against the program.

    3. Plans for learning and follow-up

    3.1 Goals for the grant

    Potential positive outcomes that we hope to see from this grant include:

    • Common Justice develops an effective communications strategy and takes initial steps to implement it.
    • Outreach by Danielle Sered and Common Justice motivates work on responses to violent crime by other policy advocates, politicians, and organizers.
    • Common Justice’s program takes an increased number of cases while maintaining its current high standards for outcomes.
    • Common Justice grows the membership of its national learning collaborative.

    3.2 Follow-up expectations

    We expect to have a conversation with Common Justice staff every 3-6 months over the course of the grant, with public notes if the conversation warrants it. Towards the end of the grant, we plan to attempt a more holistic and detailed evaluation of the grant’s performance.

    4. Our process

    Chloe Cockburn has existing relationships with the Common Justice team, particularly Danielle Sered. After becoming aware of the planned scale up in Common Justice’s activities, Chloe discussed the organization’s plans and funding situation with Danielle in more detail.

    5. Sources

    Bergseth and Bouffard 2007 Source (archive)
    Bureau of Justice Statistics 2015 Source (archive)
    Johnson 2015 Source (archive)
    Langton et al. 2012 Source (archive)
    Sered 2014 Source (archive)
    Stillman 2015 Source (archive)
    Strang et al. 2013 Source (archive)
    The Case For Diversion, Atlantic Summit Source (archive)