A conversation with the Open Society Foundations about criminal justice reform on July 26, 2013


Note: This set of notes gives an overview of the major points made by Ken Zimmerman and Leonard Noisette.


Good Ventures and GiveWell spoke to Ken Zimmerman and Leonard Noisette of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) to learn more about the field of criminal justice reform. The conversation provided an overview of the work of OSF’s US Programs, particularly pertaining to criminal justice, and the advocacy landscape more broadly. The conversation also addressed opportunities for philanthropists in criminal justice reform.

OSF’s US Programs


The budget for US Programs includes $125 million for 501(c)3 grant-making.

OSF's US Program Funds

The Justice Fund’s budget is slightly under $15 million, which includes grant-making to organizations and also to individuals through its fellowship program. This excludes OSF’s Campaign for a New Drug Policy, which receives an additional annual budget of $7.8 million. 

Grant-making strategy

Long-term and short-term

OSF aims to make long-term investments in fields where it can have an impact over time, but also to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. For this reason, 80% of the budget for US Programs is tentatively allocated to grantees in advance each year, while 20% is reserved to allow OSF to be responsive to opportunities that arise.

501(c)3 and 501(c)4

US Programs directs OSF’s 501(c)3 grant-making in the United States. There is an affiliated Open Society Foundations entity, The Open Society Policy Center, that manages its 501(c)4 grant-making, including activities in the United States.

Other than OSF, Atlantic Philanthropies is the largest national foundation that does 501(c)4 grant-making, and it is winding down, so there will be a significant gap that other funders could fill.

OSF’s work on criminal justice reform

OSF’s primary goals

Activities funded by OSF to reduce incarceration

OSF funds a variety of activities to reduce incarceration, including:

Advocacy landscape

State level

Most criminal justice policy is made on the state level. OSF funds many organizations on the state level, as well as some organizations that work nationally but support advocates on the state and local level, such as The Sentencing Project. OSF’s work to reduce incarceration has targeted California, Texas, and New York, and it is considering expanding to other states.

Potential for bipartisanship

Criminal justice reform is one of the few areas right now where there is potential for bipartisan collaboration. With recidivism rates so high, it is clear that the current system is not effective at helping those imprisoned to become productive members of society.  At the same time, crime rates across the US are the lowest they’ve been in 50 years, so there is not as much fear about public safety.

Historically, conservatives have been less supportive of criminal justice reform, but today this is not uniformly the case. Some conservatives support reform because of fiscal considerations: keeping people incarcerated is very expensive, and it removes potential taxpayers from society. Other conservatives see criminal justice reform as aligned with their values and interests. The "Right on Crime" effort out of the Texas Public Policy Foundation is playing a big role in this.

There are people on both sides of the political spectrum who are asking whether people should be incarcerated for low-level offenses, such as non-violent misconduct or drug offenses, and whether incarceration is the best way to promote public safety. 

Goals of policy reform efforts

Note: The following goals relate to OSF's priority of reducing incarceration. OSF has other goals associated with its priorities of Challenging Extreme Punishment and Justice System Accountability.

Role of philanthropy

Promising areas for additional philanthropic investment

For the past few years there has been a decline in the overall prison population, the abolition of the death penalty in multiple states, and promising changes coming out of the judiciary. This makes it an opportune moment for additional philanthropic investment to create further change.

Picking up where Atlantic Philanthropies left off

Atlantic Philanthropies is winding down its grant-making, which means that some of the organizations it has funded may soon have significant funding needs. This includes work on abolishing the death penalty and addressing many fundamental issues with mass incarceration.

Drug policy reform

Other than OSF, there is very little philanthropic support for drug policy reform. OSF approaches drug policy from a variety of angles:

Drug policy is an area where there is a massive divide between what the evidence says and how policy is designed, because it has been driven by fear and emotion. Reform of these laws is not politically popular, but it could have very significant benefits, especially for people of color. 


California has poor criminal justice policies. There is a special opportunity at present for reforming the criminal justice system in the state. In response to the fiscal crisis, Governor Brown wants to reduce the costs of incarceration in the state. In addition, a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision required California to reduce its prison population by 30,000 people, and the state is still undertaking efforts to meet that court order. 

OSF helped create a new organization called Californians for Safety and Justice, funded in part by the Ford Foundation and local funders. Californians for Safety and Justice is engaged in a campaign over the next 3-5 years to advocate for sentencing reforms and other practices. It has organized a group of victims of criminal activity who are supportive of rehabilitation for criminals and reform of the existing system. This new entity will counter the voice of existing victims’ advocacy groups that have largely been supportive of current policies.

The HOPE program

Good Ventures/GiveWell asked for OSF's opinion on the HOPE program.

A potential issue with the HOPE model is that by focusing on imposing the authority of the court, it risks including people within the court’s supervisory structure who may not necessarily need that kind of supervision, and could actually be harmed by it. There are studies that show that keeping people under supervision for too long can have negative effects on compliance. Figuring out who would benefit from increased supervision could have value, but there are risks if it is applied too broadly.

Other funders in the field