Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Contrary to many people’s assumption, most of the people in prison have not committed serious crimes and the increase in incarceration rates are not a result of an increase in crime rates. Although many people believe that representing clients and fighting criminal justice falls on the public defenders office, nonprofit organizations play a vital role in the field of criminal justice because they are independent from the government compared to public defenders offices.
Civil legal assistance describes the interventions that ensure equality before the law for at-risk individuals. Such services can improve individuals' awareness of their rights and help ensure that their basic needs are met. These include safe housing, assistance in child custody disputes, and relief from financial exploitation.
Criminal justice experts were asked to recommend nonprofits that work on solving issues across the entire time spectrum: before conviction, serving time, and re-entry. They were asked to consider different types of nonprofits, including legal defense organizations, service providers, research groups, advocacy groups, community organizing groups, membership groups, organizations that provide education and public outreach, technical assistance providers, and communications strategy organizations.
While the field has yet to coalesce upon a clearly defined approach, there is broad agreement that the emergent coordinated systems approach includes two aspects:
Comprehensive outreach engages at-risk individuals where they tend to seek help, such as social service agencies and hospitals, and emphasizes early intervention.
Effective delivery relies on a range of civil legal assistance tools from self-help kiosks to full representation to provide the minimum effective legal intervention for each individual. Implementation will require evidence-based development of best practices.
Philanthropedia surveyed 127 experts working in criminal justice (with an average of 16 years of work experience in the field) to identify those organizations that were making the biggest positive impact in the field. Philanthropedia’s experts (funders, researchers, nonprofit senior staff, veterinaries, etc.) identified 16 top nonprofits (out of 101 total reviewed nonprofits) making an impact at the national level.
There is still a lack of consensus in defining appropriate indicators to measure the effectiveness of social service agencies in helping their clients address civil legal issues. Such indicators should be developed as part of ongoing research on the efficacy of the emergent systems and the appropriateness of the range of civil legal tools.
There are a number of indicators that are appropriate to determine how well an organization is implementing aspects of the emergent approach. These indicators might be collected as part of existing intake and output processes. Below are some examples.
Effectiveness of legal awareness training for non-legal professionals: Number of social service intake workers that show improved understanding and recognition of common civil legal issues.
Effectiveness of referring clients to appropriate legal tools: Percentage of clients with identified civil legal issues who are connected with appropriate form of civil legal assistance is greater than 20%, the percentage that are currently helped by legal services.
Social Impact Research (Root Cause) has not yet analyzed organizations that provide services to at-risk individuals in need of civil legal assistance. Donors can evaluate nonprofits that provide civil legal assistance independently using Social Impact Research's Guide to Giving.
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