Social workers key players in criminal justice system

Nov 20, 2012

By Paul R. Pace, News staff

Along with attorneys, judges and juries, social workers are critical players in the nation’s criminal justice system.

In district attorneys’ offices, social workers help crime victims maneuver through complex legal processes and offer a helping hand on the road to recovery.

Betsy Biben, right, chief of the Office of Rehabilitation and Development in the Public Defender Service with the District of Columbia, meets with her staff.

On the other side of the scale, social workers in public defenders’ offices ensure defendants have a right to explain their story, and they promote the benefits of rehabilitation.

“Society has the obligation to get this system right, and the public defender service is an integral part of that responsibility,” said Betsy Biben, chief of the Office of Rehabilitation and Development in the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

Biben oversees a staff of forensic social workers whose duties include drafting profile reports of defendants. Such information may identify impairment in the defendant’s decision-making process. Reports include information about the person’s community, medical and mental health, education, court records, research findings and test results.

The work by these social workers ensures the attorney, judge and jury have an opportunity to hear about the defendant’s mental health, substance abuse, brain development, medical conditions, social development and age. The report not only provides a comprehensive assessment of the client, but also a plan of action for successful rehabilitation and re-entry, Biben said, should a defendant be convicted.

The information can also help suggest a sentence that allows the person the opportunity to be a productive member of society.

Biben said being a social worker for a public defender’s office is rewarding but also challenging.

“It is hard when a judge fails to appreciate aspects of a client’s history,” she said. “It is also hard when you are confronted with the absence of critical services or with the perfect program but at such an expense the client cannot afford the treatment.”

Biben said she was inspired to enter the field as a way to address the inequality of treatment and sentences for defendants lacking privilege and money.

“I’m fortunate to have a rare profession where we can make a difference in the lives of our clients and in the future of our community,” she said.

Biben noted that forensic social work is not for everyone.

“Few professionals can sit without judgment and listen and learn from people arrested for serious charges,” she explained. “To help that person share the worst experiences of his life with you is both challenging and a gift.”

From the November 2012 NASW News. NASW members click here for the full story.

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