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A criminal justice expert’s guide to donating effectively right now

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

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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 been asked in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests against police violence and the broader resurgence in Black Lives Matter activism in 2020 is: “How can I help?”

It’s a natural question after some of the largest and most persistent acts of civil disobedience in years took place in dozens of cities across the country. And 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, the program officer for criminal justice reform at the Open Philanthropy Project, has thought harder about that question than just about anyone. Open Philanthropy is an effort, backed by the nearly $14 billion fortune of Cari Tuna and her husband, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, to identify the most efficient, highest-bang-for-the-buck philanthropic investments possible regardless of cause area.

Open Philanthropy believes that criminal justice reform is an important area to invest in, up there with fighting global poverty or preventing mass pandemics, and that reducing mass incarceration in particular should be a high priority. The sheer size of the American carceral state means that even a 10 percent reduction in the number of people in prison or jail could over time spare millions of people from living under truly abhorrent conditions.

Cockburn put together a very useful set of recommendations for donations in the wake of the George Floyd protests, first on a Twitter thread and then in more detail in a memo to donors that she shared with me this past summer. 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.)

When I reached back out to her in November, after the initial flare-up of protests in the summer had settled and after many groups either sprouted up or grew substantially, Cockburn offered that the three organizations she thinks “are highest leverage right now (taking into account their work, what they’re winning, and their budget gaps) are the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, JusticeLA and Real Justice PAC.”

Many of these groups got an influx of attention and money this past summer — which makes now a good time to give, since they might be more in need than they were just a few months ago. For more on those groups, and other high-impact groups Cockburn recommends, keep reading.

The Movement for Black Lives and other national organizations

Cockburn is clear that which of the groups on her list is a “top pick” will depend on a donor’s specific goals: whether they want to just reduce incarceration, build alternatives to incarceration, or elect more progressive prosecutors. But “without knowing anything else,” she writes, “I’d say Movement for Black Lives, based on their strategic leadership, commitment to regranting to local efforts, and legitimacy as a movement anchor” would be a top pick for donations.

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 Phil 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.

State and local groups doing movement-building and organizing work

If you want to fund county-level organizing work, donating to national organizations that then regrant is one path. But Cockburn also recommends a number of smaller local groups that might be appealing causes for people in those specific cities or regions. Many of these groups are working on defunding the police and redirecting local money to social services; if that’s a cause you support, these might be attractive groups:

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

Investing in restorative justice and other large-scale transformations

“Defunding the police” won’t accomplish much if that money doesn’t go back into investing in alternatives that can contribute to community safety through other means. 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, including “indigenous peacemaking” groups in Native American communities
  • Spirit House, a group based in North Carolina that runs a program called “Harm Free Zone,” seeking 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”

If you identify as a police abolitionist and are interested in more radical approaches to rethinking criminal justice, these might be valuable groups to invest in.

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 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 policing like “violence interrupting,” in which community members seek to intervene and deescalate conflicts before they become violent or deadly:

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), Chesa Boudin (now district attorney of San Francisco), and Rachael Rollins (currently district attorney for Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which includes Boston).

2021 will be a particularly important year in this respect, as Krasner is up for reelection, as is Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance (who is not seen as a reformer, is facing multiple challenges, and might not even run again).

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

  • The Working Families Party of NY, which works on elections statewide but will likely endorse a progressive candidate for Manhattan DA
  • Reclaim Philadelphia, which helped elect Krasner in 2017 and will be fighting to reelect him in 2021
  • Real Justice PAC, a political action committee that works on district attorney races across the country
  • Citizen Action of New York, which is working to elect a progressive prosecutor in Albany
  • Michigan Liberation, a statewide network that is among other initiatives fighting to elect a progressive prosecutor in Detroit
  • Dream Defenders, a Florida-based group working on two local DA races currently

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.