Researchers tackle ‘smart decarceration’

Handcuffed prisoner in jailBy Alison Laurio, News contributor

The huge auditorium was filled with people from all over the country who had come to hear about one of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare’s grand challenges.

They came from varied backgrounds — from social workers to lobbyists, said Melissa D. Grady, associate professor at Catholic University’s National School of Social Services.

The challenge co-leaders came out and asked “How many of you know someone — not from a professional standpoint — who is incarcerated?” Grady said.

“It seemed like 90 percent of the room raised their hands,” she said. “It was a visual representation of how the criminal justice system and incarceration really is across the country.”

The United States leads the world in locking up its people, both in numbers and by the percent of its population, and social workers are tackling the issue as one of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work: Promote Smart Decarceration.

In a December report, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released data on 2015 correctional populations nationwide. It states the correctional population “decreased 1.7 percent” during that year, dropping below 6.8 million “for the first time since 2002” and was at “the lowest rate since 1994.”

Still, an estimated 6.7 million adults were under supervision by adult correctional systems in December 2015. That is one in 37 adults, or 2.7 percent of adults in the United States, who were incarcerated or supervised in the community while on probation or parole, the bureau said.

At the end of 2015, there were nearly 2.2 million adults in state prisons, federal prisons or local jails; almost 3.8 million were on probation; and 870,500 were on parole, it said.

In a 2014 concept paper titled “From Mass Incarceration to Smart Decarceration,” Grand Challenge co-leaders Carrie Pettus-Davis and Matthew W. Epperson wrote that the challenge is far-reaching and urgent for social work.

From the May 2017 NASW News. Read the full feature article here



  1. William Franklin-Cromwell

    I think this is a good start, with great ideas. However, one thing the article does not mention, at least not that I read, is to address disrupting the justice system’s revolving door at the base as much as possible. As I am a social work student, the area I am most interested in, and has been a passion of mine for sometime now, is looking at what can be done to curtail the rate of juvenile delinquency. It has been shown a large portion recidivism begins, when the people who are incarcerated over and over, at ages as early as ten years old, and some even younger, however not many states incarcerate juveniles before the age of ten. I think what may be helpful to decreasing the rate of those in the justice system (after considerations of those in custody due to laws that target minorities and is another issue to be tackled) is researching and developing or improving preventive programs such as multi-systemic therapy programs (MSTP’s), and other community based organizations that would allow juveniles to tap into their talents and drives which lead to delinquency but fosters those things so they can develop using those skill constructively rather than destructively. If we can do this in conjunction with the interventions suggested in the article, I believe there is potential for unprecedented declines in the justice system and improvements in our community programs.

    • William Franklin-Cromwell

      I will add that I understand budgeting for prevention is slim in most areas. I also believe this effort, both the article and my response, needs great attention at all three levels of social work practice in order to affect change.

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