As Arizona prepares to release its first round of "justice reinvestment" funds generated by marijuana legalization, south Phoenix organizations are coming up with ideas for how this money should be spent.
Two of these organizations, Project Roots and TigerMountain Foundation, are part of a larger network of Arizona-based organizations envisioning what justice reinvestment programs can be.
They aim to help the Arizona Department of Health Services get a better sense of how to distribute millions of dollars in grants.
Rosalind Akins said she hopes to see justice reinvestment money support food access and mental health.
"And mental health does not necessarily mean get them to a practitioner, a psychologist, or a therapist," she said at a DHS-funded listening session TigerMountain Foundation recently hosted at Brooks Academy in south Phoenix. "It could include that, but there's other things that bring joy and healing to such a disparate community."
"You can invest in housing, you can invest in how people are able to eat and live. If they don't have the basic needs, we'll never get to justice," said Akins, who was formerly the Community Action Network Coordinator of South Phoenix Healthy Start.
DHS said it plans to start accepting its first round of justice reinvestment grant applications early next year. For now, it is funding nonprofits across the state to host conversations with community members to determine what kinds of programs to prioritize.
Deciding how to spend millions in cannabis revenue
When Arizonans voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2020 through Proposition 207, they also approved the creation of a Justice Reinvestment Fund.
While the largest shares of money generated by marijuana legalization go to community colleges and police and fire departments, the fund gets 10% of marijuana-related taxes and fees. From 2020 until June of this year, the fund collected around $16.9 million, according to the Arizona State Treasurer's Office.
Most of the fund is allocated to county health departments and DHS for public health issues. The remainder, about $6 million so far, is for grants to nonprofits running "justice reinvestment" programs.
Under Prop 207, "justice reinvestment" programs are broadly defined and do not have to relate to drug arrests.The programs can focus on public and behavioral health, restorative justice, jail diversion, workforce development, addressing the underlying causes of crime, reducing drug-related arrests and the state’s prison population, or the restoration of civil rights and expungement of criminal records.
DHS hired LeCroy & Milligan, a Tucson-based consulting firm, to find nonprofits to facilitate conversations about "justice reinvestment" with communities disproportionately impacted by arrest and incarceration.
These conversations, which began in August, will help the department determine what "justice reinvestment" programs can look like and which ones should be prioritized, said Siman Qaasim, the Health Equity Administrator for DHS.
"We have very broad latitude on how to define a justice reinvestment program, which is why it was so important that we did our work with community," Qaasim said.
Lecroy & Milligan first compiled county-level data on arrests and prison admissions to determine where to host listening sessions. This data will also be used to decide where to prioritize funding.
The data showed that, while Maricopa County has far and away the highest raw number of arrests and incarceration, rural counties have the highest per-capita rates. It also showed that Black individuals are most likely to be arrested for drug crimes and incarcerated for all crimes.
Based on this data, DHS chose to fund listening sessions in several counties, including Maricopa, Pima, Coconino, La Paz, and Yuma.
In addition to TigerMountain Foundation, DHS is backing Black Mothers Forum in south Phoenix to host listening sessions. Other Maricopa County sessions are being run by the Greater Phoenix Urban League, Neighborhood Ministries, Native American Connections, and Onward Hope.
DHS funded more than a dozensessions, which will wrap up this month.
South Phoenix groups have visions for 'justice reinvestment'
Though DHS did not fund them, the south Phoenix-based nonprofit Project Roots is holding listening sessions and sharing feedback with the department. DHS intends to use their findings, Qaasim said.
Project Roots, based out of the Spaces of Opportunity community garden, grows produce to sell at farmers markets, donate to food banks, and deliver in seasonal produce boxes. It also holds free yoga and gardening classes.
During the listening sessions Project Roots held in September, participants offered a range of ideas for what constitutes a "justice reinvestment" project.
South Phoenix grocery stores, housing, small business support, and mental health and wellness support were community suggestions, said Dionne Washington, Project Roots co-founder.
“They’re interested in GED certifications, a safe place to practice yoga, a safe place to pick up produce boxes, maybe for free," she said. For her own nonprofit, Washington envisions creating a food and wellness hub that would help people access healthy food.
At TigerMountain Foundation’s listening session, some participants suggested music and arts programs to support mental health and wellness. One attendee wanted addiction support that connects them to the outdoors.
Angela Gragg, the owner of MAA Wellness Center in south Phoenix, said she would like to see the money used to help people who are coming out of addiction treatment and crisis care centers. She's a crisis care nurse and has seen firsthand the trouble people have when they leave a facility.
"If we don't follow them home, and see and help them cope, guess what? They come back," Gragg said.
She said she'd like to see the money used for medical check-ups and exams. Outdoor activities, exercise and cooking classes, and community events would also help, she said.
Other participants at TigerMountain Foundation's listening session wanted employment opportunities.
“Where are the proactive opportunities that would really even invite someone that was looking for a second or third chance?” asked Darren Chapman, the CEO and founder of TigerMountain Foundation, who was formerly incarcerated. “Because a lot of times when you get that opportunity, you’ve got to stop where it says, ‘Have you been convicted of a felony?’”
Chapman cited his own organization, which employs almost 50 people, around 40% of whom were formerly incarcerated or referred through parole or probation, as an example.
At its five community gardens –– four in south Phoenix — TigerMountain Foundation provides work and volunteer opportunities that go hand-in-hand with healthier eating and more active lifestyles, he said. The produce grown in the community gardens is sold at farmers markets and distributed to food pantries and restaurants across Phoenix.
TigerMountain's goals include keeping people out of jail and empowering the south Phoenix community by providing life skills support and workforce development to youth and adults.
It offers flexible employment opportunities, which can help some people reentering society after incarceration. Some employees work 40 hours a week, while others make $20 an hour with flexible shifts.
“Some of those folks are going [to prison] because of real-life behavioral issues, some of them are going there because their learning disability has frustrated them to that certain degree that they typically don’t last very long in a 9 to 5 job,” Chapman said.
Each individual joining TigerMountain Foundation also sets goals for personal and community improvement. These may include eating healthier or being more active in the community, Chapman said. TigerMountain also pairs them with a mentor.
The mentor "may be someone who has been at TigerMountain Foundation for 10 years, however, they haven’t recidivated, so they know how to stay out of jail," he said.
Groups push DHS to make the grant application process equitable
Before DHS begins accepting grant applications, a network of over 50 Phoenix and Tucson-based organizations –– including Project Roots and TigerMountain Foundation as well as larger organizations like the ACLU and Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix –– has formed to push the department to make the grant application process equitable.
“We feel that we have a great group of folks that are being represented that are typically shunned in these conversations,” Chapman said.
The network wants the grants to be inclusive of innovative and non-traditional ideas.
In October, the network wrote a letter to DHS pushing for their goals: “Because these organizations are small with mostly volunteer or minimally paid staff, they are routinely overlooked by funders because they don’t ‘look like’ other mainstream service providers, or they never hear about them because they don’t have the capacity to apply."
The network wants DHS to make the grant process accessible to smaller and emerging organizations, which may not have a grant-writing staff or a lot of cash. Their suggestions include allowing for video applications and avoiding reimbursement-based grant funding or providing reimbursements quickly.
“We challenge them to open their minds to a new way of applying for these grants,” said Washington of Project Roots. “Maybe a video application instead of red tape and 20 pages that people don't know how to fill out.”
Caroline Isaacs, the Executive Director of Just Communities Arizona and a member of the network, said that when smaller organizations receive reimbursement-based grants, they may not have enough cash to sustain themselves while they wait for the state to pay them back.
This has been an issue for state money being provided for marijuana expungements, said Marilyn Rodriguez, a member of the network and a consultant with Creosote Partners.
In response to the letter, Qaasim said she can’t provide details about what the upcoming grant process will look like. But she saidthe department is determining which suggestions in the letter can be implemented given the constraints of state procurement laws.
Qaasim acknowledged that reimbursement delays can be an issue with state funding.
“That feedback has come through even in the listening sessions, in terms of the challenges that small, grassroots nonprofits that are embedded in the communities that we are trying to reach, that are the intended beneficiaries of this program, often do not have the capital outlay to wait for reimbursement or even to spend the money upfront,” Qaasim said. “So that is certainly feedback that we're taking into consideration in terms of who we want to be able to work with.”
For now, nonprofits across the state continue to wait for the applications to open. Qaasim said the department has not yet decided how frequently the grants will be dispersed after the first round.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: South Phoenix groups brainstorm about 'justice reinvestment' funds