Social workers discuss criminal justice reform

ASW member Sammy Rangel has cumulatively spent about 16 years in prison throughout his life, mainly for charges related to theft and violence.

Rangel, who originally is from Chicago, said he started getting into trouble with the law at age 11. He repeatedly ran away from home, and joined a gang — eventually becoming its leader.

On reflection, Rangel says he always felt a need within himself to protect others and he was seeking a sense of belonging; a place to escape from a troubled childhood. But he didn’t know at the time how to handle those feelings or find a path for himself.

He is now a social worker in Racine, Wis., helping other ex-offenders establish healthier and more productive lives through the Racine Vocational Ministry, where he is the re-entry program director. The ministry offers a second-chance program for re-entrants — those establishing themselves back into society after a prison sentence.

“Everyone deserves a second chance,” Rangel said. “I’ve been through it all — foster care, rehab, solitary confinement, mental institutions — and I changed. People can change, and not every criminal is bad. Our criminal justice system needs to change, so we can give those who deserve it a chance.”

Many people agree that the U.S. criminal justice system is broken, including President Barack Obama, who in July called on Congress to take up criminal justice reform. A bipartisan group on Capitol Hill was putting the final touches on a sentencing overhaul deal during the same month.

Obama said in his State of the Union address that the current lower crime rate is a starting point to reform the criminal justice system.

“ ... Surely we can agree that it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves all of us,” Obama said.

Mel Wilson, NASW’s manager of social justice and human rights, points out that there are a lot of different issues within the U.S. criminal justice system. Those at the forefront are racial profiling and arrests; mandatory minimum jail sentencing for nonviolent crimes; and the lack of options for re-entrants to get the help they need with jobs, housing and social services after jail, thus increasing chances for a repeat arrest.

Wilson says comprehensive federal bills dealing with fairness in the criminal justice system is on the White House’s agenda, and Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have a high commitment to getting laws passed in the current legislative session.

Both parties are currently viewing about five bills on criminal justice reform, and the bills are expected to pass this month, he said.

They include the bipartisan “Sentencing Reform Act/Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015,” which was introduced in October and focuses on fair sentencing. “The Mental Health and Safe Communities Act” was introduced during the summer and looks at assessing those with mental health issues — particularly in the issuance of firearms — to determine if they are a threat to themselves and others. The legislation also focuses on strengthening federal mental health programs within the criminal justice system.

NASW is committed to criminal justice system reform, Wilson said, adding that any reforms could directly impact social work.

“Criminal justice reform responds to NASW and social workers’ concerns for social justice,” Wilson said. “Anything within this reform that shifts the emphasis to treatment and services directly impacts social work because we’re a major part of the workforce that provides these services.”

Understanding the Issues

The U.S. holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population, says Rudy Morton Gourdine, professor of social work at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Gourdine presented at a symposium on social justice and leadership at the NASW Courage, Hope and Leadership conference last year.

She refers to an NAACP criminal justice fact sheet that says African-Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. — about six times the rate of whites. And in 2008, Hispanics and African-Americans comprised 58 percent of all prisoners in the U.S., even though they make up approximately one quarter of the U.S. population.

Equity is the first major issue that needs to be brought to the forefront of criminal justice reform, Gourdine said.

“The problem with not having equity is you have overrepresentation,” she said. “What is often quoted is an African-American would go to jail for using crack, and white Americans using cocaine won’t be given the same time. People have been arguing for years that this is one of the reasons it has led to overrepresentation of African-Americans in the criminal justice system.”

Referencing the fact sheet, Gourdine said there are five times as many whites in the U.S. using drugs as African-Americans, but African-Americans tend to spend more time behind bars no matter what the crime is.

“There needs to be a discussion about how those decisions are made,” she said.

NASW member Renee Wyatt is a mental health case manager at Barbour & Floyd Medical Associates in Los Angeles. She said according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as of July 2015, 48.6 percent of the inmate population in the U.S. is incarcerated on drug offenses, which she adds could include related crimes such as burglary, robbery and fraud.

Wyatt was also incarcerated on drug charges at one time in her life, and says the criminal justice system has a bad side and — from a spiritual perspective — a good side.

“The bad side gets our attention daily through the media: police-involved shootings; brutality; prison privatization; and the unusual large number of arrested/incarcerated people of color,” she said. “The good side is — I had an epiphany when I was in court. I realized that if I kept doing what I was doing, I would spend the rest of my life in prison.”

Wyatt says that most people incarcerated are not bad, they just made bad choices and should be given another chance to do things differently. Rangel, like Wyatt, said he was making terrible choices in life.

“(Someone) may be in jail for possessing a small amount of marijuana, but the punishment outweighs what the crime actually is — and it changes the course of their life,” he said.

Wilson said it’s important to note that criminal justice reform doesn’t mean giving a free pass to those who break the law. But it does mean acting with fairness toward someone who does commit a crime, without prejudice, and taking into consideration whether the person has mental health issues, a long criminal history, and any other fact that may impact behavior. It also means treating each case and person individually.

“It’s having a consistent fair method that exists across all the criminal justice aspects, from law enforcement, to legal proceedings, to re-entry,” Wilson said.

Enter Social Work

Rangel says re-integration is extremely important for someone released from prison — and it’s where a lot of people fail to make the successful transition. He says many re-entrants struggle with mental health issues, housing issues, finding jobs and access to health care.

The federal assistance they may be offered once they get out isn’t enough to get them back on their feet, he says, and when it runs out, they turn to behaviors that often land them right back in jail.

“They need support,” Rangel said. “A lot of doors get slammed in their face. Who wants to hire an ex-criminal or have them as a tenant? Social workers have the empathy and relating skills, and they’re important for helping them find their way.”

Social workers also bring compassion and understanding to people who are stigmatized and socially isolated, Wyatt said. They meet people where they are — without judgment — and can provide personalized resources.

“The NASW Code of Ethics preamble states, ‘Our mission is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed and living in poverty,’” Wyatt said. “It’s my mantra.”

Gourdine says criminal justice permeates across issues that social workers deal with every day — such as mental health and poverty — and there is a need for stronger advocacy for reform. There are currently not enough resources that adequately look at ways the re-entry population can be supported, she said.

“People are being arrested for things like the case with Eric Garner selling loose cigarettes, and social workers have to be the voice to work with police departments, agencies, schools and communities to help resolve the problem,” Gourdine said. “We can’t put our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not a huge problem.”

Wilson says the criminal justice system is a labyrinth, but social workers can advocate at the local, state and federal levels. Especially when the criminal justice reform bills begin to surface — that’s the time to join coalitions and start writing to and calling state representatives, he said.

“We need to urge the support of criminal justice reform,” Wilson said. “And we should embrace these reforms because it should impact our client population in a positive way.”

NASW recognizes there is a deep need for solitary-confinement reform, he says, and legislation and policies moving toward those reforms do exist.

“NASW is a member of a national advisory committee that’s working with the Vera Institute of Justice and the U.S. Department of Justice on solitary-confinement reform,” Wilson said.

Rangel said 99.9 percent of his time spent in prison was filled with cruelty. A tiny piece of kindness offered to him by a supportive social worker began to change the trajectory of his life, even while he was still incarcerated.

“This person changed my life,” he said. “I feel like everything I’ve been through has led me to this place now, and I wanted to be in social work to give back.”

Several NASW Chapters have been involved with criminal justice reform in a variety of ways.

  • NASW-Connecticut: Juvenile justice advocates in Connecticut introduced legislation three years ago that would prohibit sentencing of minors as adults with sentences of life without parole.
    • The chapter made the legislation a priority issue this year and played an active role in getting it passed. The state now meets the Supreme Court decision that prohibits sentencing youth to life without parole.
    • The chapter testified at a hearing on the bill, and at several junctures in the legislative process mobilized members through alerts and phone-banked members who had legislators that were swing votes, to move the bill forward.
  • NASW-North Carolina: The North Carolina Chapter meets monthly with top Department of Public Safety staff, as well as quarterly with clinical staff from Central Prison Mental Health Hospital. The chapter says this time to come together and advise and discuss issues is key to helping support staff and inmates in custody. The chapter also has been successful in promoting the hiring of more social workers in the prison system — particularly those in clinical positions — and securing funding for mental health treatment in the state’s prison system.
  • NASW-Wisconsin: The Wisconsin chapter included the “Ban the Box” proposal in its 2015 lobby day. This bill would ban employers in Wisconsin from putting on employment applications the question as to whether an applicant has ever been convicted of a felony.
    • Passage of this bill would remove a major barrier to ex-offenders obtaining employment, the chapter said. NASW-Wisconsin also supports the decriminalization of marijuana. The chapter’s legislative and social policy committee made the decision to support the bill based upon the racial disparities in arrests and convictions for marijuana possession.

Members can visit their state chapter sites for more information.

  • NASW resources on criminal justice:
    “Criminal Justice Social Work in the United States: Adapting to New Challenges.” {need link on new site}
  • For NASW Specialty Practice Section members:
    An SPS webinar — “Ending Mass Incarceration: The Role of Social Workers in Criminal Justice Reform”— will take place Dec. 10

Social Work Pioneer Jerome Miller worked to change justice system

NASW Social Work Pioneer© Jerome Miller, who died in August, was instrumental in criminal justice reform.

His contributions included the “Massachusetts Experiment,” which replaced state reform schools with community-based programs; eliminating abusive tactics toward incarcerated youth; and creating therapeutic environments within correctional facilities.

Miller was the NASW New England Chapter’s Social Worker of the Year in 1972. His professional roles included general receiver to the federal court in Washington, D.C., federal court monitor in the Jacksonville, Fla. Middle District; and co-founder, with Herbert Hoelter, of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives.

The Center was created in 1977 to develop programs, research and support for creative and effective alternatives to institutionalization for people who are mentally ill or developmentally disabled, adult and juvenile offenders.

Miller also was a social work faculty member at Ohio State University.