New Study Investigates High Impact Philanthropic Investments for Decreasing Over-Criminalization

10/12/2016 |


Bridgespan Group report projects returns of more than 8:1 for philanthropy focused on reducing criminalization in schools and overall incarceration rates
BOSTON, October 12, 2016—A new report from The Bridgespan Group, “Billion Dollar Bets to Decrease Over-Criminalization,” details how $1 billion of philanthropy could substantially decrease the number of individuals pulled off the path to middle class due to encounters with the criminal justice system. The report features impact projections that highlight how funding a series of initiatives designed to catalyze significant change in the criminal justice system could deliver returns of up to $8.60 for every $1 invested.
“America’s current criminal system is a social and economic liability for our country. The U.S. has an extraordinarily high rate of incarceration, housing 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Its effects are felt most acutely in low-income neighborhoods of color. Today, a black man born in 2001 has a 32 percent chance of spending time in prison, which significantly reduces the chance of him being able to reach middle class by middle age,” said Debby Bielak, a partner at The Bridgespan Group and co-author of the study. 
Added Devin Murphy, a manager at Bridgespan and co-author of the study, “In order to reduce incarceration rates in the U.S., we must shift the culture of criminalization in our schools. Across age groups, black males are three times more likely than white male peers to be suspended and expelled, even for similar infractions, which results in a valuable loss of learning time. While black students represent just 16 percent of total school enrollment, they account for 31 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.”
The report recommends funding initiatives that promote policy changes to redirect funding streams from harmful punitive practices to evidence-based programs and interventions that focus on prevention and rehabilitation. Philanthropists can play an important role in subsidizing the required start-up costs and withstanding the risks of restructuring public funding streams.
The investments detailed in Bridgespan’s report focus on three core areas:
  1. Fund a research organization to collect, analyze, and disseminate hard data on incarceration across the United States. The U.S. criminal justice system comprises disparate parts and people across federal, state, and local jurisdictions, which prevents us from having a holistic view of how public funding is allocated. Philanthropists could invest in research to clarify how much the U.S. is spending on the criminal justice system, and the return on that investment.
  2. Create a national grant-based competition to incent states to develop comprehensive plans for reducing incarceration and recidivism rates while also reducing rates of crime. Much like what Race to the Top did for education, philanthropists could invest in forming a national competition that kick-starts efforts in a few selected states, creating large-scale examples of what a more equitable and rehabilitative system could look like.

  3.  Build an independent organization to collect and analyze data on the results coming from states selected for the national grant competition.Long-term success for this investment envisions that all states, not just those selected for the national grant competition, make substantive changes within their criminal justice systems. A critical enabler would be disseminating the outcomes, especially what works and lessons learned. This would require philanthropists to invest in a research organization capable of tracking each state’s process and progress, tying that data to key outcomes, and disseminating the findings so that other states can adopt policies and practices in order to achieve optimal change. 

“The projected direct impact of this bet is the increased social mobility of individuals who, if not for the interventions listed here, would end up incarcerated. Further impacts would be expected from additional benefits for families of these individuals, including a higher likelihood of their children completing high school and college,” commented Rose Martin, a consultant at Bridgespan and co-author of the study.
Added Murphy, “If a philanthropist were to make a $1 billion investment across our four recommended areas, between 185,000 and 375,000 individuals would avoid criminal convictions according to our projections. The resulting increase in lifetime earnings for the affected individuals would be between $4.3 billion and $8.6 billion. We based this calculation on the Social Genome Model, which estimates an increase in lifetime earnings of $22,800 for individuals who avoid conviction by this age.”
Bridgespan’s over-criminalization study is part of the organization’s research project, “Billion Dollar Bets to Create Economic Opportunity for Every American,” which offers a data driven, field-informed perspective on 15 high-potential bets through which philanthropists could make the biggest improvement on social mobility with a $1 billion investment.
About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group ( is a nonprofit advisor and resource for mission-driven organizations and philanthropists. We collaborate with social sector leaders to help scale impact, build leadership, advance philanthropic effectiveness and accelerate learning. We work on issues related to society’s most important challenges and to break cycles of intergenerational poverty. Our services include strategy consulting, leadership development, philanthropy advising, and developing and sharing practical insights.
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