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Wealthy Nonprofit Pumped $100 Million Into Clearing Out Cities’ Jail Populations. Here Are The Results

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Erinn Broadus Investigative Reporter
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A massive private foundation is pouring millions of dollars into dozens of cities, counties and states with the explicit goal of reducing jail populations and cutting crime. In every targeted location, crime skyrocketed, while the majority of the locations where jail populations decreased saw their crime rate soar well above the national average.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation funds the Safety and Justice Challenge, a national $100 million grant program intended to reduce jail populations by 50% by 2025, citing racial disparities among jail inmates. While the foundation claims that its funding partially contributed to a 22% decrease in the jail population nationally since the program was implemented, areas that received funding saw significant increases in homicides as crime increased across the country.

“There is no reason to believe that arbitrarily reducing jail populations will improve public safety,” Josh Crawford, director of criminal justice initiatives for the Georgia Center for Opportunity, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “In fact, there is good reason to believe that decarceration for the sake of decarceration will negatively impact public safety and increase crime.”

Moreover, in a majority of the locations that received funding to lower the jail population, crime skyrocketed well above the national average, despite the fact the MacArthur Foundation explicitly states crime reduction as one of the goals of the grant.

“Jailing people unnecessarily has huge costs… [including] lost income, damaged families, untreated mental and physical illness, wasted taxpayer dollars, more unemployment, more homelessness, and more crime,” the group argues on its website.

In total, the MacArthur Foundation funded 57 different locations through the Safety and Justice challenge, and measured the change in jail population for 25 of its grants, according to the foundation. Of those, 17 localities saw a decrease in their jail population, and eight saw an increase; in all 25 locations where they tracked jail populations, there was an increase in crime, according to a DCNF review of crime data.

The DCNF used homicides and motor vehicle thefts to calculate the scope of crime in an area because they have relatively high reporting rates compared to other crimes, as well as largely consistent definitions across multiple jurisdictions.

Philadelphia received close to $10 million from the MacArthur Foundation between 2015 and 2022, according to the foundation. Saint Louis County, Missouri; Los Angeles County, California; and Charleston County, South Carolina, received close to $6 million between 2015 and 2020, nearly $3 million between 2015 and 2021, and roughly $6.5 million between 2015 and 2020, respectively.

In many locations, the MacArthur Foundation was successful in implementing its goals; the jail population decreased by 41% in Philadelphia, 35% in St. Louis County, 13% in Los Angeles County, and 17% in Charleston County, according to the foundation.

In those time periods, crime skyrocketed; homicides in Philadelphia increased by 86% from 2016 to 2022, while motor vehicle thefts increased by 86% during that same time period. Philadelphia had 562 homicides in 2021, the highest number in its recorded history, according to an October 2022 report by the state legislature.

“It’s just unfathomable to think how many lives were impacted by gun violence,” said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney at a press conference after three people were killed over two days.

Similarly, homicides in St. Louis County, Missouri; Los Angeles County, California; and Charleston County, South Carolina, increased by 60%, 29% and 36% respectively, from 2016 to 2021.  (RELATED: Crime Has Risen Under The Watch Of Soros-Backed Prosecutors In Six Major Cities)

Worse still, in Portland, homicides increased by 506%, from 16 in 2016 to 97 in 2022, according to police data, and motor vehicle thefts increased by 111%. The MacArthur Foundation granted Multnomah County, whose population is largely made up by Portland residents, roughly $5 million between 2016 and 2021 to reduce their reliance on jails.

The next largest city in Multnomah County is Gresham, which saw a 103% increase in homicides, according to National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) data, while motor vehicle thefts in the city increased by 24%.

Moreover, the MacArthur Foundation touted a 33% drop in jail populations in San Francisco, a 41% drop in Philadelphia, a 33% drop in Cook County, Illinois, and a 17% drop in Charleston County.

The foundation granted San Francisco $4 million between 2018 and 2020. During that period, homicides have increased by 22% and motor vehicle thefts by 45%, according to police data.

Cook County saw an 18% increase in homicides from 2016 to 2021, according to data from the medical examiner. The MacArthur Foundation granted Cook County more than $6 million in grants between 2015 and 2021.

“There is significant evidence that changes to the criminal justice system are not responsible for increases in crime,” MacArthur Foundation spokeswoman Maria Speiser told the DCNF. “For example, according to a report from Loyola University Chicago, bail reform in Cook County had no effect on new criminal activity or crime. Crime rates are more effected by other factors such as the availability of guns and socioeconomic instability, like job losses and recessions.”

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks to reporters on Independence Mall about his offices Election Task Force and Election Day security in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 7, 2022. (Photo by RYAN COLLERD / AFP) (Photo by RYAN COLLERD/AFP via Getty Images)

“Nearly 75% of all people in jail are there for nonviolent traffic, property, or public order offenses. The Office of Criminal Justice does not believe that individuals causing these sorts of offenses present a threat to their communities or the city at large,” Amaury Ávalos, communications director for Philadelphia’s Office of Criminal Justice, told the DCNF.

Homicides did increase nationwide from 2016 to 2020, up 20%, according to data from Summary Reporting System (SRS) and National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), but not nearly to the same degree as the majority of locations targeted by the MacArthur Foundation.

In 10 of the cities where jail populations decreased, homicides increased at a rate higher than the national average, the highest being Portland, with a 450% increase in homicides from 2016 to 2021; followed by Philadelphia, with a 103% increase from 2016 to 2021; and Lucas County, with an 80% increase from 2016 to 2021.

Moreover, many of the areas where the jail population increased had relatively few homicides overall and/or a low population, skewing the increase in their crime rates. For example, one of the larger increases in homicides was a 200% increase in Minnehaha County, South Dakota, from five in 2018 to 15 in 2020, followed by a 150% increase in Missoula County, Montana, from two in 2018 to five in 2020.

Of the 17 cities and counties highlighted by the MacArthur Foundation for reducing their jail populations, all have seen an increase in homicides, motor vehicle thefts, or both. In fact, one of the cities with the highest decreases in jail population simultaneously had the highest increase in homicides and motor vehicle thefts.

After nearly $5 million in grants from the MacArthur foundation between 2015 and 2020, and a 41% reduction in jail population, New Orleans saw the highest murder rate in the country in 2022, according to The Wall Street Journal. Homicides increased by 51% from 2016 to 2022; in 2022, there were 266 homicides in New Orleans, the highest since 2004, when it was 267, according to city data.

“There are almost certainly people in jail and prison who might fare better in community-based programs, but there are also plenty of people not in jail or prison who pose serious public safety risks and will continue to commit serious crimes while out. Optimal criminal justice policy is a balancing act and a very delicate one; pushes to decarcerate distort that balance and harm our most vulnerable communities the worst,” Crawford said.

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