The Challenge of Collaboration: Cook County Goes After MacArthur Foundation Safety+Justice Challenge Grant

By Ali Abid, Criminal Justice Policy Analyst, Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice

The Problem of Over-Incarceration in Local Jails

The reliance on local jails has risen dramatically over the past three decades in the U.S. There are nearly 12 million admissions to local jails each year across the country—20 times the number of admissions to state and federal prisons. Nearly all of these individuals are awaiting trial, and three quarters of them have been arrested for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses. Many are held in jail far longer than necessary–largely due to their inability to pay rather than their risk to public safety. Furthermore, local jails are the starting point of our nation’s over-incarceration problem – a problem which disproportionately impacts communities of color and poor communities.

The MacArthur Foundation Challenge

To address this problem The MacArthur Foundation is launching the Safety and Justice Challenge, a five-year $75 million investment in local reform aimed at addressing over-incarceration in local jails. The grants are designed in the form of a two-stage competition.

The first, planning phase is a $150k planning grant awarded to those jurisdictions that show a willingness to collaborate across agencies, share data, and develop a clearly articulated grant for systemic change. Approaching the MacArthur Foundation as a united jurisdiction is the key – more on this below. The MacArthur Foundation will complement the grant with investments in research and data analytics; specifically, the MacArthur Foundation will bring in four of the nation’s leading criminal justice organizations to provide technical assistance – the Center for Court Innovation, the Justice Management Institute, Justice System Partners, and the Vera Institute of Justice. The planning process will comprise the most thorough marshaling together of data on our jail population with expertise on broad systemic reforms than we have ever seen in Cook County.

Following the planning phase, up to 10 jurisdictions will be selected to receive funding to support implementation, ranging from $500k to $2 million annually.


The Timing is Right for Cook County

Over the past two years Cook County has been able to reduce the population of its perennially overcrowded jail largely due to unprecedented levels of cooperation and coordination amongst the stakeholder agencies. Two years ago the jail population hovered around its maximum occupancy of 10,000, now the population is around 8,500 – still far larger than has been determined to be needed, but far better than where we were two years ago.

Much of the improvement has been due to a collaborative effort, led by the Illinois Supreme Court and bringing together all the major stakeholders—the Circuit Court, the Cook County Board President’s Office, the State’s Attorney, the Sheriff, and others—to work together on reforming the pre-trial assessment and bond court process. This collaboration is ongoing and has provided that framework for the most substantial changes to the pretrial system the County has seen. Furthermore, it has been a laudable achievement by a group of stakeholders that have not been

Continued Coordination Is The Key To Winning the MacArthur Grant

The MacArthur Foundation as well as other foundations throughout the country have been focused more and more in recent years on awarding to grants to jurisdictions with explicit cooperation amongst all relevant stakeholders. The reasons are fairly self-evident – the reduction of the jail population is not in the hands of any one stakeholder. Furthermore, foundations have floundered in the past when they have engaged one stakeholder, to the exclusion of others, and have seen their projects fail due to political infighting they were not savvy enough to predict or navigate around.

This is why over the course MacArthur’s 14 page RFP, demonstrating the willingness to collaborate and the sharing of data across agencies is iterated again and again as a key factor in winning the grant.

Considering the scope of expertise and funding being offered by the MacArthurFoundation, we hope the stakeholder agencies can work together on bringing this unprecedented level of systemic review and reform to Cook County.


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