To Govern For The Good

CUNY Institute Seeks Ways to Enhance
State and Local Public Service Nationwide

AT TIME OF DEEPLY POLARIZED NATIONAL POLITICS, a rare point of bipartisan agreement is the need to change decades of poli- cies that have made the United States the most incarcerated country in the world. Too many nonviolent offenders and too many young men of color go to prison for too long, experts and elected officials say. But while most of the attention tends to focus on state and federal prisons, the problem starts at the gateway of the criminal justice system – the 3,200 local jails where millions of nonviolent offenders wait for their cases to be adjudicated.

The search for solutions to over-incarceration has led to CUNY, where the University’s four-year-old Institute for State and Local Governance (ISLG) has quickly established itself as a thoughtful and forceful pioneer of programs to help governments serve the public more effectively. Helping to lead a $100 million initiative funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the institute is working with 20 cities and counties across the country to reduce the populations and racial disparities of their jails — and create models for localities across the country.

The incarceration initiative is a prime example of how ISLG is forging strong partnerships that produce innovative, evidence-based public policy. “We wanted to create a place where data-driven approaches could be developed to make government fairer, more humane and more e†fficient,” said Michael Jacobson, ISLG’s founding director. “The focus is on the local and state levels because that’s where most of government is, and it’s where the action is in the push for reform.”

The institute works on an array of initiatives that put in practice one facet of the University’s Connected CUNY strategic vision — using cutting-edge research to design programs that improve our communities and cities, often in collaboration with other research institutions. Along with CUNY centers and programs that focus on important public issues such as sustainable energy, HIV prevention and immigrants’ rights, ISLG is an exemplar of the University’s civic impact in New York and far beyond.

“Our new strategies are highly collaborative and partner the great resources of our faculty and our colleges to provide richer educational experiences that also have a real impact on the well being of our communities,” said Chancellor James B. Milliken. “We don’t just create knowledge through our research; we put it to use, making sure that the people who invest in us benefit from the insights we develop at CUNY.”

The Institute for State and Local Governance was founded in 2013 by two veterans of New York City government who had long imagined starting a research and policy institute to help governments across the country deliver more equitable and efficient public service. Jacobson was a deputy budget director, as well as a commissioner of the city’s correction and probation departments. His co-founder, Marc Shaw, is a for- mer first deputy mayor who is now the University’s interim chief operating officer. He chairs ISLG’s advisory board.

Since its inception, the institute has grown to a staff of 40 policy researchers, analysts and managers. The ISLG team has built partnerships with major foundations, nonprofits and government entities to initiate more than a dozen ambitious and well-funded projects. Several are making their mark as incubators of new ideas for addressing entrenched social problems.

A project called Equality Indicators, for instance, provides cities with tools to mea- sure and understand the inequities that disadvantaged people in their communities struggle with daily – a first step in closing the gaps. In another major endeavor, ISLG was selected by the Manhattan district attorney’s office to spearhead a $250 million program of criminal justice initiatives funded by forfeitures from financial crime prosecutions. And when a federal monitor overseeing NYPD policy reforms wanted to study whether police body cameras change community experiences and perceptions, he reached out to the institute to help create a citywide research survey that would be conducted by CUNY students.
“State and local governments are good at the basic services they have to deliver,”

Jacobson said, “but they don’t have a lot of time or capacity to think about how to do things differently or to look at what others are doing around the country. An institute like ours can bring that capacity – the research, the analysis, the tech- nical assistance and training – whether it’s about thinking differently about tax policy or reducing the size of your jails.”
Jacobson has deep roots at CUNY and said he long thought it would be the right place for the institute. He earned his Ph.D. in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and later spent seven years on the faculty of John Jay College of Criminal Justice before leaving to run the Vera Institute of Justice. He returned to CUNY when Shaw recruited him to start the institute.

“I always felt that as the biggest urban public university CUNY could and should have a real presence in the whole world of working with governments and training students and faculty for government, not just in New York City but nationally,” Jacobson said. To that end, he has put together a team of high-level researchers and policy specialists with experience in government, academic study and the foundation world.
“We have a unique sta„,” said Reagan Daly, the institute’s research director, a former assistant commissioner for research and planning in the city’s probation department who has a Ph.D. in criminology. “We place value not just on the technical research and being able to run sophisticated analysis but also on putting it in the larger context of knowing how government systems work. So we’re good at translating research into recommendations and boiling it down to the three or four things that are really important, not just giving people a lot of dense findings and tables.”

The institute has also worked to tap the resources of the University, collaborating on projects with a growing number of colleges and schools in ways that further CUNY’s drive to be a more integrated and collaborative university. Among those working with the institute are John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, the Department of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter and Graduate Center entities including the Center for Urban Research and the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality.

“One of our goals is to partner with as many CUNY schools and faculty within those schools as we can,” Jacobson said. “We see ourselves as a version of a not-for-profit in the context of a huge public university, which we love because it gives us access to all sorts of resources.”
It also provides a unique teaching opportunity. With an academic appointment as a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center, Jacobson teaches a capstone course in which Ph.D. and master’s students are paired with institute projects and work closely with senior sta„. (This summer Jacobson also began hosting “The Wonk,” a new show on CUNY TV that focuses on key public policy issues in the city.)
“Nurturing future government leaders and people interested in careers in policymaking is central to our mission,” said Siobhán Carney, the institute’s policy director. “We want to see a pipeline of CUNY students come through our doors because exposure to real-life projects really makes a difference.”
Here is a look at a few of the institute’s major projects:


There are more jails than colleges in the United States — a strong indicator of the mass incarceration that drives support for criminal justice reform. But what gets too little attention, say advocates of penal reform, is the overuse of local jails to house people accused of nonviolent offenses while their cases make their way through the system, including many who are incarcerated for weeks or months only because they are too poor to post bail.

“Eleven million people a year are going to jail – nearly triple the number 30 years ago. That’s an astounding number,” said Jacobson. “City and county jails have the same overcrowding and racial disparities as large prisons but often don’t have the resources or expertise to do anything about it.”

In 2014, ISLG helped the MacArthur Foundation launch a $100 million initiative called the Safety and Justice Challenge, an open call to local jurisdictions across the country to compete for grants of up to $2 million a year to help them change the way they use their jails and make their local justice systems more fair and effective. “We got 190 applications, so clearly there was a sense that people were ready for reform,” Jacobson said. “It’s obviously a very complicated thing, but there are two simple goals: Shrink your system and improve your racial and ethnic disparities within your system.”

Twenty jurisdictions were selected, and since 2015 ISLG has been working with local officials on their goals, their strategies and methods for reaching them, and their benchmarks for measuring progress. The project, directed by Daly, has a team of eight ISLG staff members, including six who regularly visit the sites to work with local officials.

“These 20 counties have determined that there are too many people in their jails and too many people who don’t belong there – people who can’t pay small amounts of bail, people there for low-level offenses who don’t pose a risk,” Daly said. “They are looking at all the decision points in criminal justice that drive jail populations, from arrest through sentencing. Case-processing time is an area that can have a big impact and a lot of our sites are working on ways of reducing it in their systems.”
The Safety and Justice Challenge will continue for several years, and ISLG hopes it will yield reforms and practices that are adopted beyond the 20 jurisdictions. “We want this to have an impact nationally,” Jacobson said.


How do you measure inequality? And how do you change it? These broad and deeply complex social questions are at the heart of one of the most significant initiatives undertaken by ISLG.

The project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, uses hard data on six themes — economy, education, health, housing, justice and services. It breaks down the multi-dimensional nature of inequalities into 96 “proxy indicators” – disparities in misdemean- or arrest rates as a measure of fairness of the justice system, for instance, or Common Core data as an indicator of educational performance — to tease out the drivers of inequality and whether a city’s policies are a contributing or mitigating factor.

“It’s not news to anyone that there are disparities in, say, math performance, but it’s important to track how those disparities are changing as a city makes efforts to address them,” said Victoria Lawson, the Equality Indicators project director. “We want to see whether they’re improving or whether this is an area where more attention is needed.”

ISLG developed Equality Indicators first for New York City and began expanding it earlier this year to five other cities: Pittsburgh; Tulsa, Okla.; Dallas; St. Louis; and Oakland, Calif. “The idea is to be more than an academic exercise — we want this to be about how data can be used to drive change and move the needle,” Lawson said. “The first step is knowing who is most disadvantaged and what the disparities are. Then we can make recommendations based on where we see things changing and where they’re not.”

Jacobson said the project’s real value, ultimately, is in helping local officials and leaders in cities throughout the country adopt evidence-based policies. “It’s important for jurisdictions to look closely at the data they have to really understand what’s going on, what’s working, and where improvement needs to be made,” he said.


In 2014, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. had an enviable problem: How to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on programs to improve public safety, prevent crime and promote a fair and effective justice system. The fund came from penalties levied against three international banks prosecuted by his office and the U.S. Justice Department for violating federal sanctions. Vance designated $250 million for a project he named the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative (CJII) and put out a request for proposals to create a blueprint for investing the money and carrying it out. ISLG got the job.

“The DA’s office is the biggest criminal justice funder in the world right now and $250 million moves through CUNY,” Jacobson said. “We’ve done all the analytic work to create the portfolio of projects, we run all the competitions to give out the money and we oversee the grantees. So in some ways, we’re like a mini-operating foundation.”

ISLG spent two years developing a far-reaching program that involves nonprofit and community-based organizations throughout New York City and beyond. “We went out and asked experts, ‘Where are the big gaps?’ ” said Siobhan Carney, who oversees the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative on behalf of ISLG. The result of the answers they got is a host of programs that have engaged more than 100 nonprofit organizations so far.
“ISLG’s extraordinary research empowered us with the information we needed to make unique investments that would have lasting impact,” said Vance.

One initiative announced earlier this year is a $46 million program to create and con- struct five “Youth Opportunity Hubs” in targeted Manhattan neighborhoods, part of the CJII’s overall mission to help young people with life issues such as education, employment and housing, and reduce the likelihood of their involvement in the justice system.

Another area of the CJII is developing new approaches for serving victims of crime, while a third is focused on options to divert people from the criminal justice system at var- ious points and reducing recidivism. This includes a statewide College-in-Prison Reentry Program announced in August by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and District Attorney Vance.
ISLG will oversee the $7.3 million program, which will create 2,500 slots for incarcerated individuals in 17 New York State prisons with college-level instruction leading to degrees or certificates.


A federal monitor was appointed as part of the 2013 court finding that the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices were unconstitutional. Last year, the monitor asked ISLG to help conduct a study of a pilot program to outfit police with body cameras in communities with the highest incidence of stop-and-frisk. “What the monitor wanted was our ability to use CUNY students to do interviews in and around public housing to supplement their polling,” Jacobson said. “Fifteen thousand CUNY students live in public housing so we jumped at that project. It was a way to get students involved and give them an experience they could use in their classes.”

ISLG partnered with the CUNY Service Corps, which provides students with paid work experiences on projects with community-based organizations and government agencies. In April, under the direction of Neal Palmer, an ISLG senior research associate, 39 students were trained and then sent out to 10 police precincts to interview hundreds of residents. About half the surveys were conducted in precincts where body cameras were going to be implemented first and the other half were conducted in neighborhoods where police would not yet have body cameras. A follow-up survey will be conducted later to determine if the cameras have an impact on police practices and residents’ experiences and perceptions of the police.