The latest issue of CUNY Matters, the University publication about the people and programs of The City University of New York, profiles the work of ISLG.
AT TIME OF DEEPLY POLARIZED NATIONAL POLITICS, a rare point of bipartisan agreement is the need to change decades of policies 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 efficient,” 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 former 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 measure 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 technical 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 staff,” 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.”