Bridging the Opportunity Divide

This Group’s Approach to Ending the Jail-Homelessness Cycle May Actually Make a Big Difference.

October 21, 2019
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This Group’s Approach to Ending the Jail-Homelessness Cycle May Actually Make a Big Difference.
A nonprofit wanted help designing a jail-discharge program, so it turned to the world’s largest knowledge marketplace. It's paid off for San Francisco’s formerly incarcerated.

On any given night, approximately 40% of San Francisco’s jail population identifies as homeless. Many of these vulnerable individuals will face jail time again after their release. A fraction will cycle in and out of the criminal justice system anywhere, between eight and 23 times in a single year. 

“Arrest is not an inevitable result of homelessness,” said Jake Segal, vice president of advisory services at Social Finance, a nonprofit that mobilizes capital across the public and private sectors to improve social outcomes. “But stable housing with appropriate support can provide a strong buffer against future jail stays.”

If people have access to assistance immediately after their release — if they’re connected to housing support services and a case manager, for example — they’re less likely to end up incarcerated for another offense. Knowing that, last year Social Finance partnered with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and Tipping Point Community, a local philanthropic funder, to pilot a program that refers inmates to housing and other social services upon their release.

“Social Finance got its start working in criminal justice. Increasingly, much of our work focuses on homelessness, and this project is a natural intersection of the two,” Segal said of the San Francisco Jail Discharge Planning Project. 

Much research was needed before the program could launch and for the Sheriff’s Department, time was of the essence.  “We were building the airplane as we were flying it,” said Ali Riker, director of programs for the Sheriff’s Department. “We wanted to get [the program] up and running because there was such an overwhelming need, but the biggest question we had was, ‘Discharge to what?’ It’s fine to tell people, ‘This is where the shelters are,’ but we really needed more resources to offer, particularly for those familiar faces coming in and out of our jail cells.”

To help them assess and learn from other jail-discharge programs across the country, Social Finance turned to GLG. The world’s largest knowledge marketplace, GLG connects professionals from across sectors with more than 700,000 subject-matter experts — a vast network of expertise representing nearly every industry, market, and issue area. By enlisting GLG’s help, Social Finance was able to quickly and accurately examine trends and best practices among discharge and reentry programs. 

“We wanted to find programs that focused on comprehensive, community-based collaborations with the intention of driving impact on recidivism and housing,” Segal said. 

GLG tapped into its extensive database to identify the right experts, including former prison officials, community leaders and policy experts, and arranged phone calls with each within 48 hours.

Because of GLG, “we were able to get a more comprehensive understanding of the key factors we needed [to focus on] for the program,” said Segal. 

For example, it can be surprisingly difficult to identify the most frequently arrested inmates within the jail system and effectively intervene. Their jail stays may be short — the result of minor violations — and they may be released in the dark of night. With the guidance and advice of GLG’s experts, the Sheriff’s Department and Social Finance set up a database to better locate those who need help and ensure they’re matched with high-quality housing and support services the moment they leave jail. 

Segal and his team learned other best practices too, such as the importance of collaboration between jail staff and community partners; robust screening and assessment criteria of a client’s needs; and giving case managers a key role.

“Successful reentry starts with risk assessment while the client is still in custody,” said Segal, adding that caseworkers are really the “glue” of the project. “They can make sure vulnerable people get to where they need to go.”

One year after its launch, the San Francisco Jail Discharge Planning Project has helped some 200 people transition more smoothly from jail. If GLG hadn’t played a part, “we wouldn’t have had the same knowledge about what makes a great program,” Segal said. 

Citing their positive experience, Segal and his team at Social Finance have already decided to draw on GLG’s experts for help with future projects. “It’s become an incredibly important part of our research,” he said.

This article was paid for and produced in partnership with GLG. GLG Social Impact delivers the power of GLG’s platform to the social sector.

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