Summary: We have more people in prison per capita than almost every other nation, San Francisco is being overrun by thieves, and other big cities have recently set new records for total murders. Are Americans uniquely awful people, or do we have a severely flawed criminal justice system? Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year by more than a hundred policy groups advocating for their preferred answers to that question. Some wish to “defund the police,” while the others argue we should put even more people in cages. In between, there are many groups with softer eyes for solutions.
The American criminal justice system spent $300 billion in 2020 to incarcerate 2.2 million of us and pay the police to put them there, according to a report from the American Action Forum. This exceeds the annual global revenue of Alphabet, parent company of Google.
Criminal justice is a massive industry and so is the universe of advocacy groups working toward what they each believe to be “reform.”
In July 2020, the New York Times reported that nonprofits funded by billionaire George Soros, such as his Foundation to Promote Open Society (FPOS), would begin a five-year program of giving $220 million to groups such as the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
EJI claims its goal is to “end our misguided reliance on over-incarceration” because “tough on crime” policies have caused “mass incarceration” that is “rooted in the belief that Black and brown people are inherently guilty and dangerous.” Current policies, according to EJI, do not reduce violent crime, but instead “makes these problems worse” because they use prisons improperly to address “poverty and mental illness.”
Soros is far from the only billionaire or large foundation pumping big money into this system.
Just a partial list of institutional donors that have made at least large seven-figure total donations to criminal justice policy groups since 2016 include Open Philanthropy, the Ford Foundation, the Arabella Advisors network, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, the JPB Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Craig Newmark Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Advocacy, the Network for Good, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
That New York Times report also revealed that the summer of 2020 protests had already led to “progressive groups, Democratic candidates and racial justice organizations” being “flooded with small-dollar donations,” allowing many of them to shatter previous fundraising records.
The Equal Justice Initiative is a perfect example. The nonprofit’s revenue for 2020 was $216.2 million, a thirteen-fold increase and nearly $200 million more than the group received in 2016. Since 2016, the Network for Good has given EJI more than $15 million. An additional $10 million came from a combination of the Soros-backed FPOS, Rockefeller, Ford, and JPB.
But the criminal justice reform movement is bigger than just so-called “progressive groups.” There are right-leaning participants, libertarians, and a wide variety of opinions about what “reform” really means. Some believe police have too many restrictions and too much oversight; others believe police don’t have enough oversight. Some think there are too many people in prison; others, too few people in prison.
As one example, qualified immunity is the legal doctrine that protects police from personal liability when they use force. Some would-be reformers argue this protection encourages abuses committed by bad cops and prison guards. But defenders of qualified immunity argue it protects good police from nuisance lawsuits and personal bankruptcy.
Another debate, involving similar issues, revolves around whether unions should exist for police and prison guards.
What Are They Fighting Over?
A complete picture of the growing, shifting, and frequently conflicting criminal justice reform players is likely impossible. What follows is a rough sampling of some of the agendas, the groups that promote them, and those that fund them.
According to 2021 data from the University of London’s World Prison Brief, we locked up 629 people for every 100,000 Americans, a larger prison population per capita than any other nation on Earth. This was six times higher than Canada, and even 23 percent higher than Cuba, the planet’s fifth biggest per capita jailer.
“The United States is sprinting in the opposite direction of other developed democracies,” warns a policy statement from the Justice Collaborative (JC). “We do not believe that Americans are more dangerous or less deserving of freedom than the citizens of the rest of the world.”
The JC and its advocacy arm, the Justice Collaborative Engagement Project, are sponsored projects of the Tides Center and Tides Advocacy Fund. The Tides Nexus is a little known but influential collection of left-leaning donor groups that collectively spend $800 million per year.
As Americans, we like to believe that we’re exceptional. Do we really need an incarceration rate that implies we’re six times nastier than the Canadians? Do we need to cage each other at the same rate as communist Cuba?
Our annual murder rate, according to 2018 data used by the World Population Review, was five homicides per 100,000 people. This was almost three times higher than those peaceful Canadians, but still well to the low end on the international scale.
Sunny vacation spots popular with Americans and Canadians alike were far more murderous. Jamaica, with the third worst homicide rate on the whole worldwide list, was almost nine times more murderous than the United States. Even Costa Ricans, known to be some of the planet’s happiest people, checked in at more than twice as homicidal.
More recent FBI data show an uptick in homicides in the United States, to 6.5 per 100,000 people in 2020. Not good, in comparison to those friendly Canadians, but like all other crime stats this was delightful compared to our historical bad old selves.
Murders per capita were 51 percent higher in 1991. Similarly, for all violent crimes, the FBI reported a rate of 398.5 incidents per 100,000 people in 2020, about where it had been for the prior decade, and far below the 758.2 incidents per 100,000 peak of 1991.
Property crimes per capita fell steadily almost every single year from 1991 through 2020, a 62 percent overall decline.
In the next installment, crime in some big cities has become sharply worse, but the full picture is more complicated.