The GiveWell Blog

Our writeup on criminal justice reform

[Added August 27, 2014: GiveWell Labs is now known as the Open Philanthropy Project.]

We’ve just published an extensive writeup on the cause of U.S. criminal justice reform, which was one of the causes we previously listed as a priority for investigation under GiveWell Labs.

We first became interested in this cause when our initial conversations around promising policy areas (in particular, our extended conversation with Steve Teles) highlighted it as having unusual political tractability. We heard from multiple sources that the combination of the adverse U.S. fiscal situation, low crime rates, and emerging conservative interest in an issue historically supported by progressives may have created a “unique moment” for criminal justice reform with a limited window.

Due to the significant amount of suffering and expense associated with incarceration, we believe there are high humanitarian stakes as well. And in initial conversations about the cause, we identified some approaches that we believe to have relatively little in the way of philanthropic support.

There are other causes that we see as having higher humanitarian stakes than criminal justice reform, and other causes that we see as being more philanthropically “neglected,” but such causes generally don’t have the same “window of opportunity” dynamic. So criminal justice reform is a plausible, though not the only plausible, candidate for “outstanding cause to work on.”*

When we started doing deep investigations of new causes, we chose to work on criminal justice reform first, because we had multiple leads already for potential grantees, and it seemed like a cause that we would quickly learn about and make progress on from the standpoint of finding giving opportunities. Since then, we have had many conversations and identified initial grantees that we find quite promising. These grantees’ activities include research, technical assistance and advocacy. They are taking what we see as promising approaches to reducing incarceration while preserving or improving public safety (and have substantial room for more funding).

We have paused work on this cause for the time being as we investigate other potential focus areas (more in future posts). However, we think it is quite likely that we will end up declaring criminal justice reform as an ongoing priority for GiveWell Labs.

Much more information at our full writeup:

Our writeup on criminal justice reform

*To put this in “cost-effectiveness analysis” terms: the “window of opportunity” aspect implies that chances for influencing policy are unusually high in this domain; our analysis of potential policy impacts implies that such influence would have high humanitarian value; the fact that there is little existing philanthropic support for what we consider promising approaches implies that more funding could make a difference. Thus, speaking broadly, the prospects for high impact per dollar spent seem relatively strong. Future posts will compare this cause more explicitly with other potential policy causes. As discussed previously, we believe that estimating the cost-effectiveness of policy-oriented philanthropy is particularly challenging, but that there are initial reasons to believe that it can be quite high relative to other styles of philanthropy.


  • Colin Rust on May 7, 2014 at 12:07 pm said:

    It looks like the (right wing/libertarian) Charles Koch Institute has some interest in criminal justice reform. Interestingly, their framing of the issue is focussed on human flourishing not budgetary impact:

    Can criminal justice system reform improve overall well-being for individuals, families, and communities?

    The United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population but about 25 percent of its known prison population. In fact, the country’s prison population has increased by 790 percent since 1980, exceeding 2 million people in 2002.

    …[T]he sharp rise in the number of people behind bars has had a significant impact on well-being. A criminal conviction, even for a minor offense, hinders opportunity and advancement, can contribute to a breakdown in family structure, and can put a strain on community resources. All too often, the effects of incarceration propel former prisoners to commit another crime, creating a vicious cycle of recidivism…

    Also in this general space is the Innocence Project, which has about a $10 million annual budget and has significantly influenced the conversation on the death penalty in the US.

  • Emma on May 7, 2014 at 9:06 pm said:

    I find this area of research for GiveWell Labs very exciting. Seeking out underfunded but potentially effective ideas rather than just underfunded, effective charities is more risky, but seems like it could have even more potential upside in the long term. Looking forward to reading about more about other cause “candidates” in future write-ups.

  • Robert Wiblin on May 20, 2014 at 7:20 am said:

    This is excellent work.

    Personally I am skeptical that criminal justice reform will be among the best cause areas because it doesn’t seem to offer exceptional flow-through effects on the future. Better US criminal justice would do a lot to reduce unnecessary suffering today, but will it do that much to improve humanity’s overall position in 50-100 years? Certainly it will do some good things (e.g. better use of human resources, lower taxes, less cruel attitudes towards other people) but they don’t seem exceptional. My intuition is that improving research practices would have greater and more persistent flow-through effects, for example.

  • Owen Cotton-Barratt on May 20, 2014 at 10:01 am said:

    Rob, I think that if criminal justice reform is one of the best opportunities we have for the long term, it will be because of the usual benefits of improved growth and values, and because it offers an unusually cheap opportunity to purchase these.

    The ‘window of opportunity’ argument gives support for a case that it may be particularly cheap to purchase the benefits. This is because normally if you push on some reform, you should expect to be moving it forwards in time just for a little, so only accrue the benefits for that period. If there really is a special window of opportunity for reform, after which we will lock-in with a system for a sustained period, then the expected value of reform goes up, because you hope for the chance to tip the balance and move the threshold forward a long way.

    I think we should tend to be somewhat sceptical of claims of special windows of opportunity, because it can be hard to judge correctly. It may be that what is seen as a window of opportunity now is actually the first step in an inevitable trend towards a better prison system, and we are back with the ‘speeding things up’ dynamic. However it is still true that we should value the area more highly because there *might* be a window of opportunity.

    Overall I guess you are right and that this will not be a top area, but there are enough plausible mechanisms to high cost-effectiveness that I could be persuaded otherwise by more data.

  • Ian Turner on May 20, 2014 at 10:09 am said:

    This makes me wonder if there is room for meta-charity in criminal justice reform. There are already many charities working in the area, but appparently not in the ways Givewell feels are neglected. Would it be more cost-effective to convince these organizations to adopt a different approach?

  • Holden on May 23, 2014 at 1:14 pm said:

    Thanks for the comments, all.

    Rob and Owen: I agree with Owen’s basic characterization – what makes criminal justice reform “exceptional” is not the “flow-through effects coefficient” but rather the opportunity to leverage one’s dollars by affecting policy. I also agree that it can be hard to tell what a true “window of opportunity” is; however, I think that attempts to forecast the overall importance of a cause, especially when focused on far-future benefits, are quite uncertain as well. As stated in our more recent post, I could imagine that either of the two criteria (tractability or importance) could seem more measurable (and thus practically important) to me a few years from now.

    Ian: we don’t have much experience trying to convince organizations to change their missions, but I don’t think it would go well. GiveWell focuses on changing behavior of donors, and we generally tend to appeal to a small subset of donors; I don’t think we would be nearly as successful at advocating to organizations, who generally have many other pressures (including their other donors) acting on them. (I’m also not sure that such organizations should change their approach; this is distinct from believing that a particular approach is underfunded).

  • Colin Rust on May 25, 2014 at 10:32 am said:

    I’d made a comment a while back that never appeared somehow, but anyway I made two points:

    Some of the right wing interest in this subject is driven by concerns about human suffering, cf. the Charles Koch Institute on this subject. (And no doubt progressives care about saving money too.)

    The Innocence Project is an interesting charity in this space. Their work has centered on freeing individuals on death row, principally based on DNA evidence, but my sense is they have also had significant influence on policy, in part by highlighting the unreliability of eyewitness accounts and confessions.

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