Although the U.S. makes up only 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s prison population. For decades, mass incarceration has affected millions of individuals, families, and communities, yet the tactic has had a minimal effect on reducing crime. The field began to see growing interest from donors starting in 2015, and as last summer’s Black Lives Matters protests demonstrated, more people are recognizing that racism has long been entrenched in our criminal justice system.

“The strategic question is, ‘how do we … further heighten this sense of urgency and use that energy to generate solutions that reduce incarceration through policies and practice changes while increasing alternatives for addressing harm and violence?’” said Chloe Cockburn, who has led Open Philanthropy’s strategy for investing in criminal justice policy and practice reforms to substantially reduce incarceration while maintaining public safety since 2015. 

Giving Compass recently spoke with Cockburn about this approach and how donors can leverage the current momentum to make an impact. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Tell me about your strategy to reduce incarceration and why it’s an effective focus for donors.

For decades, the politics of mass incarceration have relentlessly favored more prisons, more criminalization, more pervasive uses of law enforcement, causing immense harm and suffering. By focusing on reducing incarceration, we can measure success in terms of how many fewer people are suffering in jails and prisons, away from their families. I’m focused on:

  1. Investing in the leadership of directly impacted people who are the most compelling voices for why we need change. I’m also focused on strategic communications and media to amplify those stories and help the public see a path to something different.
  2. Investing in campaigns and infrastructure to make law changes at the local, state, and national level. That requires funding, advocacy, policy expertise, and organizing. Prosecutor reform is a major focus here, as their practices really affect how the laws are applied.
  3. Helping to build infrastructure to expand restorative justice and violence interruption. Both of these are powerful alternatives to incarceration and punishment for building healthy and safe communities.  

I think about investing in certain capacities that set up the right people in the right places and times in the right infrastructure to take advantage of the opportunities in front of them. We've seen our best successes by investing in leadership first and partnering with them to develop strategy rather than picking strategies and hiring leaders to fill those roles. 

Q: Are your investments addressing the structural racism embedded in the system?

Racism in the criminal justice system is an extension of racism in society. If you focus on people most impacted by the problem, you're going to invest in a lot of leaders of color, particularly Black leaders, because those most impacted are the most motivated to spend the time and develop the expertise to challenge what's going on. 

Policy reform interventions focusing on symptoms alone will not lead to transformation. Think about building the power of directly impacted people to shape politics and policy. Desmond Meade, a formerly incarcerated Black leader, led the effort to restore voting rights to over a million people with felony convictions in Florida. This effort is fundamentally changing how political power works in the state. With an expanding voter base of directly impacted people, lawmakers are going to start using a different calculus when deciding on how to vote on policy changes that come before them. 

When considering any plan for change, donors should be asking about BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] leadership to ensure that the strategy reflects their perspectives, experiences, and knowledge.

Q: What challenges do donors face when investing in criminal justice reform? 

The number of organizations and layers of work can seem overwhelming. I’ve seen donors get caught up trying to fully model the many moving pieces and creating their own strategy when what we need is more people plugging into a shared strategy. The last five years have shown how much we can win with concentrated, strategic investments -- I wrote about the Los Angeles example in the Washington Post, for example -- and now what’s needed is increased giving to power up these approaches in more places.   

In my experience, the things that have worked have been because of an integrated strategy of grassroots organizing, excellent policy, technical work, excellent narrative and communications work, and electoral work. I encourage donors to embrace the systematic nature of the problem and the fact that many aspects of the criminal justice system were built to solve political problems, not crime problems. 

This field has seen a lot of success with a focus on building the social and political power of people who are most impacted by incarceration or over-policing. People caught up in the system, their families, and communities, have been treated as disposable collateral damage in political wars. The more powerful a group of people is, the less likely it is to be seen as disposable. 

Q: What are the bright spots you're seeing in this work?

There are many! I’ll start with a modest example: We invested in a little coalition in Baton Rouge that included two organizers -- a Black pastor and the mother of someone who died in the jail. The local government was considering expanding the jail by over 1,000 beds. Previously, the City Council would hear from the sheriff that a bigger jail was needed. Thanks to the leadership of the coalition, numerous people began showing up in force to city council meetings sharing their testimony about why jail expansion would cause huge amounts of harm and not address the problems in the city. They succeeded in stopping the expansion. 

The Baton Rouge example shows a few things: How the issue is really tractable in local jurisdictions where so much of the contestation around resources is happening, the benefits of strategic targeting of resources that come if you have right information about who and where to fund, and the efficacy of strong local organizing. A few other examples of these exciting jail fights include Down Home North Carolina’s work on rural jails, the Justice LA coalition in Los Angeles, and Close the Workhouse in St. Louis.

In a vast country, going up against a massively-funded system (latest estimates are $300 billion a year), change makers need to look for every point of strategic leverage possible. Part of what’s so heartening and exciting about this work is that there are so many leverage points when you know where to look. Fuel for accelerating change comes from the millions of Americans who are recognizing that the status quo system is not serving them well, and are asking what something different could look like. 

One of the strongest examples of this realignment is in prosecutor elections, where in recent years, reform candidates are winning elections against well-funded anti-reform incumbents and opponents. These wins are made possible by a multi-part strategy that includes c3 and c4 organizing, narrative work, policy support, and pure elections work. In Philadelphia, Larry Krasner recently won a second term by a 2-1 margin. Black voters in particular strongly affirmed Krasner’s reform direction. We provided c3 funding to support coalitions in Philadelphia to develop the platform demands made on these candidates and set the media and narrative context for these outcomes. Other c3 funding went into Get Out the Vote campaigns and similar voter engagement work. The importance of c4 resources is significant -- this type of work can’t happen without it -- but there is a lot of room for c3 funding, especially in the years between elections, to lay the groundwork for an informed and engaged public. 

Voters recognize that pitting justice against safety is a false choice. There are so many options for building the safety of a community, from investments in community programs, to health and housing, to ensuring that law enforcement resources are spent on serious crimes rather than focusing on punishing and criminalizing homelessness and drug addiction.    

This is a very joyful time because we are able to make advances. It shows what is possible, but to reach scale, we have to continue to push more into the space. It's an exciting time when every dollar in has a really good shot of producing impact.

Q: Final advice for donors?

Instead of getting bogged down in a long process of trying to figure out the master plan for ending mass incarceration or doing extensive landscape analyses, consider partnering with people who have a strong track record of making an impact in this field, and moving quickly alongside them. My colleagues and I across funding institutions are very happy to answer your questions and help you find your way. 

Cockburn’s Recommended Resources:

Cockburn’s Recommended Giving Opportunities

  • Life Comes From It: Supports grassroots movement-building work rooted in lived experience and relationships for restorative justice, transformative justice, and Indigenous peacemaking. 
  • Justice Accelerator: A new grantmaking organization dedicated to dramatically shrinking the overall footprint of America’s criminal legal system, with a major initial investment from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and leadership, led by Ana Zamora.
  • Just Impact: A donor support organization and attached fund for donors to make strategic investments in criminal justice reform. 
  • Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice is both a hub for practitioners around the country to learn, and a partner to multiple sites that are setting up larger project. 
  • Essie Justice Group, led by Gina Clayton, represents women who have incarcerated loved ones, developing their leadership and connecting them together for powerful advocacy. 
  • Fair and Just Prosecution networks and provides policy analysis for the new wave of reform prosecutors that have taken office in a few dozen jurisdictions over the past few years. 

To learn more about this issue, connect to more giving opportunities, or to sign up for Cockburn’s donor memos, contact her at