Texas billionaire and former Enron executive John Arnold is behind criminal justice reform initiatives in the state of Indiana that experts warn raise red flags amid recent crime spikes across the United States, according to records reviewed by the Washington Examiner.
The U.S. has seen major violent crime increases in recent years, especially during 2020’s racial justice riots, which roughly coincided with wealthy donors supporting plans, such as cashless bail, that Republicans argue led to criminals walking free. Arnold and his wife Laura Arnold’s purportedly “nonpartisan” limited liability corporation, Arnold Ventures, has awarded grants since 2019 for “racial justice” research and the development of Indiana policy blueprints that some criminal justice experts say could harm public safety if made into law.
“Indiana already got a taste of the Left’s pro-crime agenda in 2021, when the Indianapolis Bail Project paid to release two men who then committed murder while out on bail,” Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) told the Washington Examiner, referring to a bail group that received over $175,000 between 2018 and 2019 from AV and has been restricted after Indiana’s legislature passed a bill preventing it from bailing out criminals.
“Hoosiers rejected these policies for a reason. Out-of-state billionaires won’t find sympathy for a liberal, soft-on-crime agenda in Indiana. House Republicans should pass my bill to defund state and local prosecutors who refuse to enforce the law,” added the congressman, who introduced a measure in October 2022 that would block Justice Department grants to areas that enforce cashless bail.
Arnold’s donations to a variety of left-leaning causes through the years, including to groups linked to the movement aiming to fight purported “disinformation,” have stayed relatively obscure. At the same time, however, the philanthropist has supported right-leaning issues, such as education and pension reform.
As an LLC, Arnold Ventures is not required to disclose who it sends grants to. The organization has a grants database on its website, but the public has no way of entirely verifying whether or not the database includes all of its awards. AV has said that it granted out over $409 million in 2021.
In 2019, AV announced an almost $2.5 million grant to the Research Foundation of the City University of New York, a health group chartered in 1963 by New York’s government. The grant was to “develop, launch, and manage” the Reducing Revocations Challenge, which was created to transform probation supervision and reduce prison populations.
One of the 10 participating jurisdictions for the initiative was Monroe County, Indiana, according to the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, a think tank. As part of the initiative, the county’s probation department and Indiana University released a report in June 2021 listing several alleged “strategies” to keep offenders out of prison.
Monroe County did not receive cash through the AV grant, which was directed to Indiana University, according to a source close to AV and familiar with its giving operations. The university pulled in over $198,000, said the source.
Strategies listed in the report included creating a “non-punitive warrant service,” launching a type of court to process “technical” probation violations, and removing payment of fines and fees as a “standard condition” of probation. The report also called for probation officers to be trained on “racial equity and implicit bias,” two ideas Republicans have linked to critical race theory, which holds that the U.S. is systemically racist, yet teaches people to view others in terms of race.
“Arnold Ventures’ goal with the Reducing Revocations Challenge is to support probation departments in developing evidence-based strategies to increase effectiveness of supervision through reducing failures, and then share those learnings more broadly,” an Arnold Ventures spokesperson told the Washington Examiner.
But the policies outlined in the June 2021 report as part of the challenge are “detached from reality,” according to Charles Stimson, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia who now manages the Heritage Foundation’s National Security Law Program. A “technical” court would result in crime cycles repeating and be expensive for the government, he told the Washington Examiner.
Rafael A. Mangual, research head for the Manhattan Institute’s Policing and Public Safety Initiative, said those promoting “technical” violations reform seem to think there’s a “mass incarceration” issue, especially for people doing things such as failing a drug test or missing required appointments. But the policy idea “obscures” that people are often sent back to prison for multiple violations or new criminal charges, Mangual told the Washington Examiner.
“Recidivism data actually speaks volumes here,” he said. “If you look at people who go through the prison system in the United States, somewhere between 80% and 83% of people who are released from state prisons are going to re-offend and be rearrested, and charged with a crime.”
In the second phase of the Reducing Revocations Challenge, which is ongoing, AV sent $128,000 to Indiana University, and $170,000 was subgranted to the Monroe County probation department, according to the source close to AV. The batch of funding was part of an over $3.1 million AV grant in 2021 to the Research Foundation of the City University of New York, records show.
In 2021, AV released its own report saying it would like prosecutors to be “committed to racial equity” and “use punitive measures sparingly.” The report claimed mass incarceration has unfairly affected minorities and that black people are “over-policed, over-prosecuted, and over-incarcerated in comparison to their white counterparts.”
Around one year later, AV announced an over $603,000 grant to Indiana University “to study prosecutorial discretion in traffic and misdemeanor cases” and “improve transparency and accountability” in Monroe County and Lake County, Indiana. The grant, which is part of a $7.4 million AV grants pledge for prosecutor research in 19 states, has a term of 2022 to 2025, according to AV’s website.
The Indiana project has actually been dubbed “Promoting Racial Justice and Transparency in Indiana,” according to Monroe County meeting minutes from April 2022 reviewed by the Washington Examiner.
One of the project leads listed by AV on its website is Tri Keah Henry, an Indiana University criminal justice professor. Henry said amid the 2020 riots that “defunding the police isn’t as deep” as people “are making it out to be,” noting it’s “a reasonable conversation to have.”
Cities across the U.S. have backpedaled on efforts to defund police departments following violent crime surges. The defund movement coincided with officers quitting in record numbers, such as in New York.
Defunding the police isn’t as deep as some of you are making it out to be. We defund/reallocate money all the time for other programs/institutions. It is a reasonable conversation to have.
— Tri Keah (TRIK + EE + UH) (@itsDr_Henry) June 10, 2020
“The worry that we should always have in the back of our minds, when it comes to attempts to divert people from the criminal justice system, is if it is just a way to ultimately pursue decarceration for its own sake,” said Mangual. “Or are we doing this in a very smart, measured way at the margins where we’re very carefully targeting people who don’t actually pose a significant risk to society?”
The ideas outlined in the AV-backed “racial justice” research are a “red flag” because it means criminals, many of whom are statistically minorities, will walk free, according to Barry Latzer, a criminologist and emeritus professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“If they’re going to use racial quotas for who gets in jail, that’s a bad idea to begin with because you have to look and see who does the crime,” Latzer told the Washington Examiner. “You can’t have racial quotas for offenders. Blacks have pretty high arrest rates because they have high offending rates.”
Arnold’s funding of criminal justice reform in Indiana occurred around the same time he poured more than $45 million into criminal justice reform efforts in New York.
Some groups that received the funds, including the Vera Institute, a progressive nonprofit group that has supported defunding the police, lobbied in favor of a controversial 2019 bail reform by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). The law banned cash bail for all but the most extreme felonies and misdemeanors and was partially rolled back in 2020 and 2022.
Bail reform has been a heated topic in Indiana, where the Bail Project group helped get killers free, according to multiple reports. In June 2022, a judge denied the Bail Project’s request to stop Indiana’s government from enforcing restrictions on charities posting bail for criminals.