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As billionaires such as George Soros have garnered attention for bankrolling criminal justice reform efforts, one deep-pocketed donor has remained relatively obscure despite dropping massive sums into the arena.
Texas billionaire John Arnold, a former Enron executive and hedge fund manager, has quietly poured more than $45 million into New York groups working on criminal justice issues in recent years, a Originol Digital review of grants found.
From Arnold Ventures, a limited liability corporation, the Democratic donor has pushed money to left-wing organizations and universities for studies, prosecutor efforts and establishing groups and policy hubs. In 2019, Arnold and his wife, Laura, devoted nearly $40 million to initiatives that include bail reform.
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Millions of their dollars have flowed to organizations in New York that supported former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s controversial 2019 bail reform law. Critics say the reform contributes to rising crime in areas such as New York City as repeat offenders face no bail and are released back onto the streets, and some Arnold-funded groups have come to its defense.
A spokesperson for Arnold Ventures told Originol Digital that the group did not advocate for New York’s bail reform and that its bail-related financial support came after the legislation passed to better understand whether the policy works.
“John Arnold’s millions have propped up many left-wing causes but none so dangerous as the woke justice movement that has decimated New York,” Scott Walter, president of the conservative nonprofit Capital Research Center, told Originol Digital.
“The groups Arnold funds peddle utopian pipe dreams under the guise of progressive reform,” Walter said. “But the victims won’t be billionaires like him. They’ll disproportionately be poor people of color.”
According to a search of Arnold Venture’s grant database, the group disbursed more than $13 million for criminal justice initiatives to the Vera Institute of Justice, a progressive nonprofit working to end mass incarceration, since 2016.
The Vera Institute supported Cuomo’s 2019 bail reform legislation and dropped tens of thousands into criminal justice lobbying during the first half of that year, disclosures show. They later highlighted the efforts in their year-end report.
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“In New York State, Vera partnered with advocates to increase public pressure and momentum for change, as well as worked with government leaders to demonstrate that bail reform is not only possible, but actually feasible,” their 2019 annual report states.
“This approach was critical to an astonishing outcome: the New York State legislature passed some of the most sweeping criminal justice reforms in five decades—a move that will dramatically overhaul the state’s bail system and has the potential to end mass incarceration at the local level.”
Arnold Ventures steered more than $2 million to the Innocence Project, which defended the reform law as it came under fire from critics this year, saying that rolling it back would be a “bad idea.” At least $1.6 million more went to the Brennan Center for Justice, which has also defended the law.
“There is no clear connection between recent crime increases and the bail reform law enacted in 2019, and the data does not currently support further revisions to the legislation,” the Brennan Center wrote in March.
The billionaire’s group also dished out millions to other New York-based organizations for criminal justice efforts, including the New York Criminal Justice Agency, Research Foundation of the City University of New York, Fund for the City of New York, New York University, Measures for Justice Institute, and Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York, their database shows.
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Jeremy Travis, the executive vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, signaled support for the Empire State’s bail reform efforts before its passage but stressed balancing public safety.
“Communities want more people released before trial, and at the same time, they strongly value public safety,” Travis wrote in a March 2019 op-ed. “An honest pretrial system would balance these needs.”
Within the piece, Travis called for all defendants awaiting trial to be released unless they are “exceptionally high-risk.”
Arnold Ventures’ spokesperson said that following its passage, they provided $5.5 million to a handful of organizations, including the Vera Institute, to collect up-to-date information for agencies, help local jurisdictions understand how the new pretrial system functions and provide an objective assessment of the bail policy.
Meanwhile, around the time of Travis’ op-ed, Forbes reported that the Arnold planned to dole out $39 million to “reform America’s broken bail system,” which went toward bail reform and other justice initiatives.
“Right now, in most places, if you are arrested, the amount of money you have determines whether or not you get to go free [on bail],” Arnold Ventures’ then-vice president of criminal justice James Cadogan told the publication. “That is fundamentally unjust. The impact of that falls disproportionately on the poor and people of color.”
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One of those grants went to the Public Safety Lab at New York University to study “the impacts of bail, pretrial detention and counsel practices on defendant-level outcomes across 1,028 counties,” Forbes wrote.
And as crime skyrockets in New York City, critics have taken aim at the law.
In August, New York City Mayor Eric Adams and police department heads slammed the state’s reform laws as “insane” and “dangerous” amid an increase in arrests and a series of high-profile attacks on law enforcement and the public.
“This is about recidivists who cause New Yorkers to suffer needlessly,” New York Police Department Commissioner Keechant Sewell said at a press conference with Adams. “Every day, as hardworking New Yorkers start their day or night of work or school, or to simply enjoy what this city has to offer, recidivist criminals are planning or taking the opportunity to commit their next larceny, robbery, burglary or other crime.”
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“Their efforts are increasingly aided by the fact that after the NYPD has arrested them, the criminal justice system fails to hold them appropriately accountable for their actions,” Sewell said. “These offenders face very few, if any, repercussions, despite committing crime after crime.”
Mayor Adams added that this was not “a battle against those who saw the need to reform a criminal justice system” but one “against those who are exploiting those reforms.”
Originol’ Stephanie Pagones contributed reporting.