The sexual, physical and emotional violence perpetrated by Department of Corrections staff at the nation’s largest women’s prison, Ocala’s Lowell Correctional Institution — and facilitated by the corrupt officials who covered it up — revealed that Florida’s penal system is rotten to its core. It’s evident that change won’t come from within the system.
Florida needs a grassroots movement led by those affected by the state’s criminal-justice system to force desperately needed reform. And this movement will need support. As a former community organizer in Miami and the current director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which encourages foundations to help those with the least power in our society, I call on Florida’s philanthropists: If you care about Floridians’ wellbeing, criminal-justice reform must be a top priority.
Florida has the third-largest penal system in the country, but the nation’s grantmaking foundations — and especially those in Florida — have not made criminal-justice reform a priority. Of the $90.1 million spent by foundations nationwide on criminal justice reform since 2006, just $320,000 was spent in Florida, and only $20,000 of that came from a Florida-based foundation. This is not for lack of resources — there are more than 2,000 foundations in the state, which have disbursed $5.3 billion in grants since 2006.
Of course, Florida’s foundations do a great variety of important work that benefits marginalized residents of the state, but I wonder if they see the connections between their work and the criminal-justice system. In the past 10 years, Florida foundations spent $86 million on mental healthcare, $79 million on human rights and $190 million on public safety. Yet because of the lack of funding for criminal-justice reform, we must ask whose mental health do Florida funders care about? Whose human rights? Whose public safety?
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The answer, I fear, does not include the 100,000 Floridians under state penal control.
Since 2006, Florida foundations have spent just $6.3 million on grants benefiting those convicted of a crime. Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Corrections spends $5.3 million every day. In other words, Florida foundations spent 0.12 percent of their grantmaking budgets benefiting this disenfranchised population, while the state spent about 8 percent of its annual budget keeping them locked up and — the Miami Herald’s reporting suggests — in mortal danger. In the face of this staggering difference, what can Florida philanthropists do?
Movements for criminal-justice reform in other states have realized something that Florida philanthropists need to understand: To fix our broken criminal-justice system, we must have fewer offenders in the first place. In addition to humane rehabilitation, we must advocate for police reform, sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration.
Grassroots movements can certainly be successful, even on issues as complex as criminal justice reform. Last year, foundations and organizations in California banded together to passProposition 47, a sentencing reform effort that’s already helping relieve the state’s overcrowded prisons. The seeds of such a movement in Florida are already in place: In October, a coalition headed by Florida’s ACLU sent a letter to the Department of Justice urging an investigation of the Florida Department of Corrections’ abuses. Recently, a Maryland philanthropist pledged $15 million to the national ACLU to reduce mass incarceration and improve reintegration efforts. Part of the donation is designated for work in Florida. Florida foundations have much to gain from partnering with and learning from these organizations. And with their dollars, public leadership potential and technical and human capacity, they are poised to build the power needed to dismantle an unjust system ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands of Floridians.
It’s time Florida philanthropists appreciated the power of people organized around a common goal. Their dollars and their commitment can build a movement that will transform the state’s corrupted criminal-justice system.
Aaron Dorfman is executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a Washington, D.C. based watchdog for foundations. He was executive director of People Acting for Community Together in Miami from 1997 to 2007, and he is an alum of the Miami Fellows Initiative.