The criminal justice system needs an overhaul. Right now, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Despite accounting for less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States makes up over 20 percent of the global prison population. Our prison system has cost Americans an estimated $1.2 trillion to date, but the human cost is much higher.
Bad policies have consequences. The criminalization of substance use, poverty, mental illness, and homelessness bloat already-full prisons. Some policing practices incentivize officers to focus on revenue generation instead of public safety, leading to a debilitating cycle of incarceration for low-income and minority communities. A lack of restorative justice means that parole’s technical requirements can send people back to prison for small infringements like unpaid fines and missed appointments.
The result: Those who’ve been incarcerated have little chance of transforming their lives and contributing to society. We believe there’s a better way. Stand Together Ventures Lab envisions a criminal justice system that keeps communities safe, rehabilitates people, and recognizes the potential in everyone to transform their life. To do this, we partner with social entrepreneurs who are creating a better path forward. Why do we care? Criminal justice reform is just one part of the comprehensive approach the Stand Together community is focused on in our work across the key institutions of education, communities, business and government. Here are a few challenges we’re committed to tackling right now, while recognizing that systemic change requires solutions across all areas of criminal justice.
- Empower police to focus on violent crime
Police are essential—especially in responding to violent crime. But we risk adverse outcomes when law enforcement is the default response to mental health, addiction, homelessness, or other social issues. When someone is experiencing or at risk of a crisis, we need more tools to connect them with services that don’t require a police response, which usually leads to the emergency room, or jail. Our fund looks to identify and invest in new solutions that fundamentally improve how law enforcement and communities engage with one another. In addition to community-based alternatives to police response, this may include solutions focused on diversion, improving police culture, decreasing the harmful financial impact of fines and fees, or otherwise reducing rates of incarceration while putting people on the road to reintegration.
- Cash bail reform
Pre-trial detention for those unable to post bail leads to more than half a million people currently being held behind bars while they wait for a potential conviction. The cash bail system disproportionately affects low-income people and often places the financial burden on defendants’ families. This costly practice means how much money a person has in their bank account determines whether they remain behind bars, regardless of flight risk or perceived threat to public safety. And families and low-risk offenders aren’t the only ones paying the price. Locking people up before trial costs taxpayers $13.6 billion each year, according to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative. Stand Together Ventures Lab actively sources ventures focused on reducing the negative impacts of bail, increasing civil liberties, and supporting individuals in navigating the complex legal system where technical violations can result in locking up people who shouldn’t be.
- Equal justice in the courtroom
For those who are already unable to post bail, affording a private attorney and good representation can be next to impossible. And when it comes to justice, having representation with the time and resources to build a good case matters. For example, audio and video evidence plays a role in 80 percent of criminal trials, but most public defenders struggle to find the time needed to review all relevant materials. Enter JusticeText, a software platform that makes it easier for public defenders to incorporate audiovisual evidence in their clients’ defense. By making this evidence simple to upload, transcribe, and analyze, JusticeText improves the efficiency of defense counsels and promotes racial and economic justice in the courtroom. Stand Together Ventures Lab (through STVL3, LLC) invested in JusticeText and actively supports scaling its efforts so defense attorneys can be more effective.
- Creating a restorative, not punitive system
A lack of nationwide criminal justice data means that states are ill-equipped to find solutions to the root causes of ballooning incarceration rates. Nationwide, criminal justice professionals use different—and often outdated—systems for tracking data, which creates massive inefficiencies. The lack of transparent and shared data tracking complaints and actions against individual officers can perpetuate the risk of future adverse encounters. But through innovation, progress is happening. For instance, Recidiviz, a Stand Together Ventures Lab partner, is a data platform that compiles and organizes public data from national, state, and local jurisdictions, allowing criminal justice leaders to use data to understand the effect of programs, practices, and policies, and improve criminal justice outcomes. What does that look like in practice? Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Recidiviz has used real-time data to help 34 states recommend 44,000 people for early release. In addition to tools like Recidiviz, we look for products and services that advance rich social connections with current or formerly incarcerated individuals (while lowering the cost of communication), enrich the efficacy of rehabilitation efforts, and empower individuals through educational and career opportunities.
More work to be done
From an emphasis on investments in individualized education to funding efforts to scale upskilling to help Americans impacted by COVID-19 get back to work, our community is committed to investing in solutions to the biggest problems in society. We’re excited by the progress that innovators are making to ensure fair chances for communities that experience high rates of involvement with the criminal justice system, as well as for people who’ve paid their debt to society There are countless other solutions to the issues affecting criminal justice reform. We’re on a mission to find the entrepreneurs who are working to keep communities safe, tackling overcriminalization, improving police culture and building toward a more rehabilitative and productive society for all.
If that’s you, or if you know a venture we should connect with, we’re all ears. Submit a proposal here.
Written by Sihyun Choi, Managing Director of Stand Together Ventures Lab, and Brian Howe, Venture Partner