Managing Director Mindy Tarlow on How Criminal Justice Reform can Unlock Economic Mobility

Q: What is the Justice and Mobility Fund’s strategy for change?


Mindy: Justice and Mobility seeks opportunities to both reduce and mitigate the impact of the justice system on people’s economic mobility. Let me unpack that statement a bit. First, the reason we anchor on both “reducing” and “mitigating” impact is that, while it’s incredibly important to reduce the flow of people into the system, we also need to mitigate the damage that’s been done to people who have already been through it, and that number is huge. Right now, 77 million adults in America have a criminal record. So, if we focus just on reducing the number of people entering the system, we risk leaving behind the tens of millions who are already bearing the system’s scars – from the everyday stigma of a criminal record to the long-lasting trauma and consequences of even a short period of imprisonment.

Second, we’re focusing squarely on those interventions most conducive to promoting economic mobility. Removing barriers to and advancing economic opportunities for individuals, their families, and entire communities are the cornerstones of our strategy. To do this, we are looking both across the system and across types of interventions to identify the biggest drivers of economic mobility:

  • We’re not anchoring our work on one part of the justice system…for instance, only on diverting people before they enter the system, or only on supporting community reentry efforts. We're looking for solutions at multiple touchpoints that have the potential to boost economic mobility.
  • And those solutions can take different forms…For example, you can provide a direct service that finds people jobs, or you can push for policies that lift bans on the jobs you can get if you have a criminal record. Same idea, just different strategies.

Finally, we’re not just making nationwide investments – we’re making place-based investments as well and see key opportunities for state-level work to inform and influence the national work, and vice-versa. To date, we’ve invested in two states – Michigan and Oklahoma – that can surface local innovations that, if successful, could scale to other places. And where it makes sense, we are bringing a national lens to that work. For example, the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) has a longstanding presence in Oklahoma, and through our recent Justice and Mobility investment, is collaborating with a local nonprofit that can help advance skills of CEO clients, setting them up for better, higher-paying jobs.


Q: You’ve spent many years working in the social sector -- what do you think this means for leaders in this space? 


Mindy: I think most nonprofit leaders – particularly in the justice arena, which has been woefully under-resourced for decades – live in six-month increments. It's hard to plan ahead because you spend so much energy just trying to stay in place…I remember this so vividly when I was heading a nonprofit organization. I used to call it the “hummingbird syndrome” – it felt like I was flapping, flapping, flapping, but struggling to move forward, and I knew from talking to other leaders that I was far from alone.

There are so many extraordinary leaders in this space. The most important thing we in philanthropy can do is give them the resources and infrastructure they need to realize their visions. And by that I mean capital that's longer term, larger, flexible, and that comes with the organizational strengthening, strategic planning, and capacity-building supports that position leaders to think and plan ahead, and be proactive and nimble as dynamics change and opportunities emerge.


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