Criminal justice is one of the major topics within social and civil rights in the U.S. Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. With over 2.2 million men and women living behind bars, our imprisonment rate has increased 500 percent over the past thirty years, making the U.S.’ imprisonment rate the highest it’s ever been. As a result of these trends, the US experiences severe prison overcrowding and a rapidly expanding penal system (The Sentencing Project).
Contrary to many people’s assumption, most of the people in prison have not committed serious crimes and the increase in incarceration rates are not a result of an increase in crime rates. Most people are in jail because of minor, non-violent offenses. This includes drug offenses, inability to pay for child-support, or violating technicalities during their probation. So it is a shift in sentencing policy (not behavior) that has dramatically increased the number of people incarcerated. There is also mounting evidence that large-scale incarceration is not the most effective tool for maintaining public safety (The Sentencing Project).
Nonprofits play a vital role in the criminal justice field working on issues that range from criminal justice reform to direct support of prisoners. We first explored this topic in 2011; and our research revealed 16 national nonprofits and 21 local nonprofits making a strong impact in the field of criminal justice. In order to keep our information relevant we refresh the research every three years, so we are looking into the cause once again. We’re eager to discover how the sector and the research results will prove changed (or not!)
Scope of the Research
We are asking that experts recommend up to 4 national/multi-state nonprofits and up to 3 local nonprofits having a strong impact in the criminal justice sector.
Criminal justice support is generally thought of in terms of a time spectrum: the beginning (before conviction), middle (during incarceration), and end (reentry)
Avoiding incarceration – These interventions begin as soon as an individual comes in contact with the criminal justice system. One major intervention is obtaining proper council. A large majority of people arrested cannot afford to hire their own lawyer to represent them. This is unfortunate because at times, public defenders do not have the training, resources, or time to properly represent their clients. This can contribute wrongful convictions.
Criminal Justice Reform (at-large) – on a whole criminal justice reform works to shift the number of people incarcerated through systemic changes. This includes introducing alternatives to incarceration, decreasing the length of probation, changing sentencing norms for first time offenders and those convicted of non-violent crimes. Criminal justice reform can also include issues related to police brutality, juvenile justice and detention, and life without parole for juveniles.
The School to Prison Pipeline – This phrase is used to describe a disquieting national trend in which young people are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Disciplinary systems, such as “Zero-tolerance” policies, criminalize minor infractions of school rules. Students are often criminalized for behavior that has traditionally been handled inside the school. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.
Racial disparity – More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day (Sentencing Project). This disparity is due to racially bias trends in arrest rates and sentencing, not differences in criminal behavior.
Prison conditions – Work in this area focuses on ending cruel, inhuman, and degrading conditions of confinement. Too often there are instances of and physical and sexual violence in prisons and jails as well as the absence of medical treatment, and the over use of solitary confinement. These inhumane conditions are often unconstitutional. Combating these violations starts with increasing public accountability and transparency in jails and prisons. One of the major contributors to poor conditions is prison overcrowding. It not only contributes heavily to the above conditions, but limits inmate access to supportive and rehabilitative programming and increases potential for prisoner violence.
Death Penalty - The U.S. is virtually the only industrialized country that maintains the death penalty. Many reformers find this problematic (especially when coupled with the reality of wrongful convictions).
Gender Disparity – The number of women in prison is increasing at twice the rate of men. This large-scale female imprisonment has a disproportionate effect on their children who suffer from their mother’s incarceration and loss of family ties (Sentencing Project).
Felony disenfranchisement – Reentry refers to the post incarceration when individuals return home and attempt to reintegrate into society. This period is fraught with difficulties as laws impede voting, obtaining employment, buying or renting a home, getting credit, and providing child support. Many people who have served time lose their welfare benefits, access to educational grants, and housing benefits as the result of convictions for minor drug offenses.
We encourage experts to recommend various types of nonprofits including: legal defense organizations, service providers, research groups, advocacy groups, community organizing groups, membership groups, organizations that provide education and public outreach, technical assistance providers, and communications strategy organizations.
Participation in the Research
If you are a professional (foundation staff, researcher, nonprofit staff member, etc.) working in the field of criminal justice and have insight on nonprofit organizations working in this field, we’d love to hear from you. You may have received an email from us with a link to our survey. The survey will be open until late-October 2014. We hope you will share your perspective and insights! If for some reason we have missed you and you think you have a valuable perspective to offer, please contact Jasmine Marrow at firstname.lastname@example.org with information about your current position and background, and we would be happy to send the survey to you to include your recommendations.
Additionally, we invite your feedback and thoughts about how you might frame this type of work. For those readers less familiar with this topic, we hope you learned something new and will check in again when we have the results of this research. Thank you all for your participation!