News and analysis
November 07, 2014

$50-Million Gift to ACLU Provides Jolt for Criminal-Justice Overhaul

The American Civil Liberties Union on Friday announced a $50-million gift from the Open Society Foundations that will go toward its efforts to overhaul the criminal-justice system.

In addition to its significance for the ACLU, which is in the early stages of a fundraising campaign that will end in 2020, the gift lends philanthropic muscle to a movement that has gathered bipartisan momentum in recent years.

Because the ACLU is a 501(c)(4) "social-welfare" organization, the money can be used for political activity. The ACLU has earmarked the gift for legislative action and public education, with a goal to halve the number of Americans behind bars in six years. It plans to create a database of incarcerated people, build political capacity in early primary states ahead of the 2016 election, and focus on three to five states where it thinks the 2016 ballot could bring substantial changes.

Anthony Romero, the ACLU’s executive director, believes one of those states will be in the Deep South, a nod, he says, to the growing conservative clamor about the cost of imprisonment.

"The area of criminal-justice reform is ripe for massive change in American society," says Mr. Romero. "There is an increasingly bipartisan consensus that the way we’ve dealt with incarceration is wrongheaded and expensive."

That common ground, he believes, has turned more and more prominent grant makers onto an issue that has received relatively little philanthropic attention in past decades.

"The philanthropic community has increasingly realized they need to work where there is philanthropic consensus," Mr. Romero says.

In California, conservative multimillionaire Wayne Hughes Jr. joined with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and the ACLU in support of Proposition 47, a statewide ballot initiative to reclassify personal possession of certain drugs and theft of $950 or less as misdemeanors. The measure passed convincingly.

The ACLU used $3.5-million of the $50-million grant from Open Society during the campaign. Mr. Romero called it the "quiet phase" of an effort to overhaul the criminal-justice system, which will now go national.

A group dubbed Funders for Safety and Justice in California also came together two years ago to support statewide efforts. Its members include the Ford Foundation, Open Society, and the California Endowment.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation also have done work on the issue.

Timothy Silard, whose Rosenberg Foundation also belongs to the California coalition, believes the movement and its philanthropic champions are on the verge of a breakthrough.

"It’s a very exciting moment," he says. "We have a real window of opportunity."

That excitement stems in part from a growing enthusiasm among small-government types, whose embrace of the issue offers hope for bipartisanship. Prominent conservatives like Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Grover Norquist, for example, have pushed for it. The latter two signed a statement of principles drafted by Right on Crime, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Open Society’s gift to the ACLU, on the other hand, strengthens an old liberal alliance. Former foundation president Aryeh Neier, who served in that post from 1993 to 2012, used to run the ACLU, and Open Society founder George Soros is a longtime supporter of progressive causes. Current foundation president Christopher Stone, meanwhile, served as a professor of criminal justice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Mr. Romero hopes the Open Society gift will catalyze a fundraising campaign set to culminate with the ACLU’s centennial in 2020. "George’s gift allows us to challenge the next generation of civil libertarians," he says. "We can plan on the next 100 years and not just rest on our laurels from the last 100."

Send an e-mail to Avi Wolfman-Arent.