clock menu more-arrow no yes

A criminal justice expert’s guide to donating effectively

Chloe Cockburn’s job is finding and funding the highest-impact groups working on criminal justice. Here are her top picks.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

A protester with a sign reading “Prosecute Killer Cops, No Justice, No Peace, Defund the Police” protests in downtown Los Angeles on June 5.
Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

One of the most common questions I have heard friends ask in the 18 months since the George Floyd protests against police violence is: “How can I help?”

While the question of what being a good member or ally of movements for racial justice means is vast and beyond the scope of this short article, I think it’s possible to say a bit about a narrower question: Where should a person who worries about the trajectory of criminal justice in America donate money?

Chloe Cockburn has thought harder about that question than just about anyone. Until recently, Cockburn was the program officer for criminal justice reform at the Open Philanthropy Project, a foundation-like organization backed by the nearly $14 billion fortune of Cari Tuna and her husband, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. It seeks to identify the most efficient philanthropic investments possible regardless of cause area.

More recently, Cockburn and colleagues launched a group called Just Impact Advisors, which will make grants to criminal justice groups and advise donors interested in the issue. It is a continuation and expansion of her work at Open Philanthropy, trying to find the most effective organizations that are reducing the number of people in prisons and jails. It’s currently backed by a $50 million gift from Open Philanthropy. Suffice it to say, Cockburn has a lot of experience making tough choices about where to donate significant sums of money to try to fight mass incarceration.

Cockburn put together a very useful set of recommendations for donations in the wake of the George Floyd protests last year, first on a Twitter thread and then in more detail in a memo to donors that she shared with me last summer. For this year’s giving season, I reached back out to her this month for her updated list of recommendations.

Note that Cockburn does not by any means intend the list below to be exhaustive; an organization not being listed does not mean that organization is ineffective. But these are groups for which she, as a professional grant-maker with deep experience in this area, can vouch for as of this writing. (If you’re a large donor interested in talking through these issues, Cockburn also provides tailored recommendations; you can reach her here.)

Many of these groups got an influx of attention and money in the summer of 2020 — which makes now a good time to give, since they’re now getting less attention and might be in greater need of funding than they were 18 months ago.

State and local groups doing movement-building and organizing work

Most criminal justice policy is made at the state and city level, meaning that state- and city-level organizations are often best situated to change the system. To that end, Cockburn recommends a number of small local groups that might be appealing causes for people in those specific cities or regions.

  • Starting Over Inc., led by Vonya Quarles, works on connecting people who have been incarcerated or homeless to housing and other services in Riverside, California; Cockburn commends them for “anchoring criminal justice reform work” in the county.
  • Free Hearts, led by Dawn Harrington, is a Nashville-based group that works to reunite families that have been fractured due to incarceration.
  • JusticeLA is a coalition in Los Angeles that Cockburn notes has “scored huge wins in the past year around canceling a multibillion-dollar jail contract.”
  • Forward Justice, led by Daryl Atkinson, is a legal and policy organization based in North Carolina with a focus on supporting “racial, social, and economic justice” throughout the Southern US.
  • The Abolitionist Law Center, led by Saleem Holbrook, is a public interest law group based in Pennsylvania that fights against carceral policies like solitary confinement and life imprisonment without parole.
  • Voice of the Experienced, led by Norris Henderson, is a Louisiana-based grassroots organizing and advocacy group that organizes people affected by incarceration to reform the criminal justice system.
  • Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) is a multi-issue Chicago community organizing group.
  • The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition organizes formerly incarcerated persons and in particular works to restore their right to vote.
  • Equity and Transformation (EAT) is a group working with and for post-incarcerated and marginalized black Chicago residents and workers, often working outside the formal economy.
  • The Crossroads Fund is a foundation that funds a number of grassroots groups across Chicago.

The Black Lives Matter local organizations in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Louisville, Kentucky, also fit under this grouping.

Investing in restorative justice and other large-scale transformations

One way to reduce incarceration is to invest in alternatives to the traditional prison system. Two groups Cockburn recommends that are working on organizing for “restorative justice,” an umbrella term for non-carceral approaches to preventing and healing from crime, violence, and victimization, are:

  • Life Comes From It, a “grant-making circle” that distributes funds to grassroots restorative justice groups nationwide, including “indigenous peacemaking” groups in Native American communities. “The fund accepts donations of any size, and grants are often small ($5,000-$25,000), meaning your contributions make a real difference,” Cockburn says. “They are the only practitioner-led national fund providing this type of support to restorative-based solutions.”
  • Spirit House, a group based in North Carolina that runs a program called Harm Free Zone, which seeks to “reduc[e] and eventually eliminat[e] community reliance on law enforcement” by “uncovering and restoring intervention practices, existing within distinct communities, to prevent or intervene in incidents of interpersonal conflict and state violence”

It’s not a restorative justice group exactly, but Cockburn also recommends the National Black Food and Justice Alliance. As the name implies, the group is focused on food justice issues, but it takes a very broad view of that mandate as part of a more comprehensive agenda of building Black power over land and food production, and pursuing initiatives like restorative justice.

Cockburn also recommends a number of groups that are piloting alternatives to traditional criminal justice systems, like “violence interrupting,” in which community members seek to intervene and deescalate conflicts before they become violent or deadly. Cockburn recommends giving to the Community-Based Public Safety Collective, which grew out of the Newark Community Street Team in Newark, New Jersey, and now supports local groups around the country working on violence interruption and other alternatives. (The effectiveness of violence interrupters is actively debated, and part of what these groups are doing is experimenting with new methods that might be more effective.)

Electing more progressive prosecutors

If you’re more electorally minded, writes Cockburn, you could consider donating to the campaigns of progressive prosecutors. District and county attorneys have an incredible amount of flexibility in deciding whether to bring charges, whether to offer plea bargains, which pleas to offer, which sentences to pursue, and on and on. Many scholars of criminal justice, like Fordham’s John Pfaff, argue that prosecutorial discretion, and in particular a rise in “tough on crime” prosecutors, has been the main driver of mass incarceration.

“Analyzing data from state judiciaries, [Pfaff] compared the number of crimes, arrests, and prosecutions from 1994 to 2008,” Vox’s German Lopez writes. “He found that reported violent and property crime fell, and arrests for almost all crimes also fell. But one thing went up: the number of felony cases filed in court. Prosecutors were filing more charges even as crime and arrests dropped, throwing more people into the prison system. Prosecutors were driving mass incarceration.”

One major force fighting mass incarceration in recent years has been the rise of prosecutors explicitly committed to reducing prison populations, including Larry Krasner (now district attorney of Philadelphia), Kim Foxx (district attorney of Cook County, Illinois, including Chicago), Chesa Boudin (district attorney of San Francisco), and Rachael Rollins (currently district attorney for Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which includes Boston).

Cockburn thus recommends a number of groups working on DA campaigns, trying to get more Krasner/Boudin/Foxx/Rollins-style prosecutors in office where they can seek lower sentences and stop prosecuting low-level offenses:

  • The Working Families Party, whose state-level affiliate parties work on prosecutors’ races and endorse progressive candidates around the country
  • Real Justice PAC, a political action committee that works on district attorney races across the country
  • Action St. Louis, which is working on the reelection effort of progressive St. Louis prosecutor Wesley Bell

If this area interests you, you can consult Real Justice PAC or Color of Change’s Winning Justice Project (another prosecutor elections group) to see if candidates against mass incarceration are running in your city or county.

The Movement for Black Lives and other national organizations

For donors with more national interests, Cockburn recommends giving to the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), “based on their strategic leadership, commitment to regranting to local efforts, and legitimacy as a movement anchor.”

M4BL is a network of more than 100 member organizations, each focusing on different aspects of the civil rights and criminal justice reform movements, such as Color of Change, the Black Movement Law Project, the Black Lives Matter Network, and dozens of smaller local and regional groups that might otherwise struggle to receive funding. Donations to M4BL through ActBlue are regranted to these member organizations based on need, which allows for greater targeting efficiency.

At a national and regional level, Cockburn also recommends:

What unifies these donations is their role in supporting a broader racial justice movement, as opposed to narrowly fighting for specific outcomes like, say, abolishing bail.

Those specific causes are important too, but as Cockburn and Open Philanthropy have written, “the expansion of what is politically possible cannot be achieved without mobilizing a large base of directly impacted people — for example, people convicted of crimes, people who have spent time in jail and/or prison, crime victims, their families, and their communities. We think that building this constituency must be done from the ground up, hence our attention to county-level organizing work.”


Update: This story was originally published in 2020 and has been updated throughout for 2021.