Researchers tackle ''smart decarceration''

Back of white man in orange county jail jumpsuit

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.

picture of Grady

Big Numbers, Big Costs

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.

“Though the United States holds only 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses a remarkable 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,” they state. “At the peak in 2008, 2.3 million American adults, one in 100, were incarcerated in prison or jail at a cost of over $52 billion annually.”

Also compelling, they wrote, is that “the majority of the imprisoned population is made up of people of color and people suffering from poverty or behavioral health disorders.”

And many are behind bars because they cannot afford to post bond and get out of jail while waiting to appear before a judge or go to trial.

Reflecting those facts, the three overall challenge goals are three interrelated outcomes: substantially reduce the incarcerated population; redress racial, economic and behavioral health disparities within the criminal justice system; and maximize public safety and well-being.

An Early Start

Matt Epperson

Epperson, an associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and an NASW member, said he and Pettus-Davis began working on the issue before the Grand Challenges were announced last year.

“We came to this issue because it was really a unique opportunity,” he said. “Incarceration was starting to hit a tipping point and starting to go down. It also was a perfect storm of conditions starting in 2009. Some of it was related to the financial crisis, because for most states, incarceration costs about 15 percent of their discretionary spending. We saw the potential for something to happen.”

Pettus-Davis, an assistant professor at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, said the impact of mass incarceration goes beyond the person behind bars and the bottom lines of jurisdictions footing the bills.

“It has a major and devastating ripple-out that affects families and the communities they come from,” she said.

Because of a longtime interest in the impact of incarceration, Pettus-Davis launched the Institute for Advancing Justice Research and Innovation in 2015 based at the Brown School. 

“It’s specifically focused on the development and rigorous testing of progress for people who get out of prison,” she said. “The goal is to give the best opportunity to do well and succeed after release.”

“Half of the people released from prison are back in three years. Seventy seven percent are arrested for a new crime within five years. What the institute is doing is to make sure we’ve identified what works for who and how as people are released.”

The institute is a public-private endeavor that pulled together support to develop cutting-edge tools, Pettus-Davis said.

“It’s so expensive to confine people, but there are not many resources developed for people getting out of prison,” she said. “People in the criminal justice system are not trained for that.”

They have developed new assessment tools for rehabilitation and intervention and are working on research to know what works to help people who are released so they can guide practice theory and develop treatment manuals, Pettus-Davis said.

“We’re really aiming to usher in the next generation of help and support for their families as well,” she said.

Disparities Among Incarcerated

Epperson said the group’s initiative concept paper lays out glaring disparities among those behind bars. 

Those include:

  • The likelihood of incarceration is one in nine overall, one in 17 for white men, one in six for Hispanic men and one in three men for African Americans, who are 13 percent of the population but make up 40 percent of all prisoners.
  • More than half of all prisoners were living in poverty the year before being arrested. Former prisoners face a homelessness rate four to six times that of the general population.
  • Estimates of serious mental illness in prison and jail populations range from 14 percent to 25 percent, a rate more than double that of the overall U.S. population.
  • Almost 1.5 million, or 65 percent, of inmates meet criteria for substance use disorders, and 75 percent of prisoners are estimated to be in need of intervention. Only about 11 percent receive treatment behind bars. 

Epperson, whose work includes a focus on mental health, said while one study found more than 50 percent of those in jails have a mental health problem, he uses the 14 percent figure and says those are people with a serious and lifetime diagnosis.

“It’s true that being incarcerated can make an existing mental illness worse,” he said “I would argue that it does just that. A lot do develop depression, PTSD and anxiety disorders while incarcerated. There are lots of folks in addition to the 14 percent who need that addressed.”

“For women who are incarcerated, it’s up to one-third who have a serious mental illness. In other racial and ethnic categories, it might be even higher.”

And those behind bars have no access to treatment and are in a setting that is highly stressful, Epperson said.

“Most get worse in jail,” he said. “It’s a problem whether they’re getting treatment or not. The need to reduce incarceration doesn’t result in an increase in crime. We would say a lot of incarceration doesn’t reduce public safety. You do that by providing more effective interventions.”

And the money spent in locking up people could be better spent on things like support to access different housing, job training and substance use treatment, Epperson said.

The drug court example of targeting a particular problem was found to be effective and has propelled a movement toward other problem-solving courts, including veterans courts and courts for women. One important thing they have done is change a lot of thinking to “Oh, we don’t have to lock people up. Let’s do something different here,” he said.

If you look at the “front end” of the justice system, some prosecutors and public defenders are using deferred prosecution, Pettus-Davis said.

“Deferred justice is for people who really shouldn’t be pushed into county jails,” she said. “Instead, they are given support to become a law-abiding citizen through deferred prosecution.”

Researchers Map Course

The decarceration research working group is spending its first year of work mapping out its agenda, said group co-leader Amy Blank Wilson, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Social Work in Chapel Hill.

Amy Blank Wilson

“More and more people are becoming involved, and we hope that will grow,” she said. “Our job is to harness the resources of the profession to help develop the resources social workers need.”

The system needs help because it is broken, Wilson said.

“It’s not designed to help people,” she said. “Look at the recidivism rate—up to two-thirds of those incarcerated will go back to prison. That’s a failure of the system to achieve its designated outcome.”

The group’s defined goals are developing collaboration and research focus agendas and organizing and promoting research that social workers already are doing, said Wilson.

“We’re now on goal to develop core activities and action steps that are both aspirational and action-oriented—what steps we can be doing short-term and long-term,” she said.

They’re also looking at ways to develop mentoring relationships so seasoned and newer social workers can work together to produce more ideas, Wilson said.

The group, which has quickly grown from 30 to 50 members, is diverse in career lengths, which, she said, “is pretty great,” adding that usually as a researcher, you don’t get the chance to meet and talk to other researchers.

“This area hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in research for a long time,” she said. “People are really getting excited to get a chance to talk about this and also about turning the tides of incarceration.”

“Since the last financial crisis, criminal justice budgets are facing a challenge. In a way, you could argue that crises may present an opportunity.”

Three Target Areas

Because incarceration’s impact is so wide—affecting not only the individuals but also their families, neighborhoods and communities—the practice working group is focusing its work on three phases: pre-incarceration, during incarceration and post-incarceration, said Grady.

“Support before a person goes into incarceration and when getting out can improve families, improve communities and improve society,” she said. “It’s both micro and macro work, and it’s a large chunk of what social workers do.”

Those working on each phase are doing research and education, but they also are connecting and collaborating so work is not duplicated, said Grady, co-leader of the practice group and an NASW member.

“We’re really at the beginning stages of this,” she said. “At the conference, leaders of the Grand Challenge talked about a 10-year, long-term list of agenda items. They’re making sure we’re doing this in a thoughtful way and figuring out how to do it so it makes the most impact. It really is a grand challenge.”

The group will include reasons why people go into the system, what the laws are and what is critical to the goal of preventing them from going back in, Grady said.

One challenge is where and how to focus energy so the findings have the most impact. Another is encouraging those “in the trenches to get a seat at the table,” she said.

“We’re trying to branch out from academia and make sure non-academics  who do the work and see it are there and are a part of this,” Grady said. “We want to represent all social workers.”

“We welcome any level of participation that people want to bring. The more voices from different practice experiences people bring, the richer our outcomes will be.”

Social Work Framework

All 12 Grand Challenges affect society overall, Grady said.

“Everything they touch is where social workers work,” she said. “Decarceration affects every level where social workers work; macro, mezzo and micro. When someone goes back into the community, it affects the individual, the family, the neighborhoods. We can help them remain intact and be stronger as a result.”

Social workers are the right group to address decarceration, Wilson said, “because it’s our job.”

“Social work has the lens, the framework to offer,” she said. “It has a different viewpoint, and we have a tremendous amount of talent and power in this.”

“We are harnessing that power—not control, but power—and are creating avenues and opportunities so we can work together toward our shared goal.”

A quote from Michael Sherraden, director of the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis, tops one of the pages of the Smart Decarceration Initiative paper “Guideposts for the Era of Smart Decarceration,” published in February. Sherraden said:

“Social innovation has made what we think of as human development, progress, and civilization possible. Social innovation has made possible all of the social systems and institutions that we take for granted. Unfortunately not all human social innovations are successful. Arguably, mass incarceration in the United States today is one of those wayward innovations. Humans created mass incarceration, and we have the ability to uncreate it.”

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Healing Justice

Nonprofit provides exonerees, crime victims and their families with support, reconciliation and recovery services

Jennifer Thompson

Jennifer Thompson was in college in 1984 when she was brutally raped in her home. She helped police with a composite sketch, and picked out a man in a photo lineup and a physical lineup. She testified at Ronald Cotton’s trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to serve a life sentence plus 54 years.

“Then you’re given the task to move on with your life,” she said. “I was able to get married. Then I gave birth to triplets. With all the things moms do, it probably saved me.”

In 1995, the original prosecutor contacted her about DNA testing. Three months later, Thompson found out Cotton was not her rapist.

“It was another man, a serial rapist who went on to destroy six other women’s’ lives,” she said. “All that came crashing down on me. Cotton had lost part of his life. I had never felt any guilt for being raped until then. And then I was overwhelmed.”

“He had suffered additional harm, and I felt responsible for it. The media, everybody was blaming me. I withdrew from the world. I couldn’t even feel.”

Two years later, Thompson asked to meet with Cotton.

“I needed to ask for forgiveness,” Thompson said. “Thirteen years after it happened, we met in a small church and he immediately said he was not angry with me. He had forgiven me years ago. We realized we had both been harmed, and it was from that place that Ronald and I began to heal.”

They became friends, co-authoring a book together, “Picking Cotton,” which became a New York Times best-seller.

Then Thompson met Katie Monroe, a lawyer whose family had also survived a wrongful conviction, and they now head Healing Justice, a nonprofit organization that provides support, reconciliation and recovery services to exonerees, crime victims and their families.

Katie Monroe

Thompson is the founder and board of directors’ chairwoman, and Monroe is the executive director of the project, which is based in Chapel Hill, N.C., and has an office in Washington, D.C.

Monroe’s story involves her mother.

“My mother’s boyfriend died, and she was wrongfully convicted,” she said. “She spent seven years in prison and was home on appeal for a time. I worked on mom’s case. Her longtime boyfriend had committed suicide, and through a variety of mistakes, she was wrongly convicted. The ordeal took 11 years from end to end.”

The National Registry of Exonerations was founded in 2012. It provides information about all known exonerations in the United States since 1989.

Since 1989, there have been 2,006 exonerations and a total of 17,499 years lost by those wrongly imprisoned.

In 2016, 166 prisoners were freed—a record high. Of those, 74 pleaded guilty, 70 were in cases where “official misconduct was a contributing factor,” and 94 were defendants in cases “where no crime actually occurred,” the Registry’s website states.

In its first two years, Healing Justice directly served 50 exonerees, 12 original crime victims and survivors, 20 family members of exonerees or victims, and about 30 criminal justice officials or staff members, Monroe said.

“We have also provided voice, tools and resources to many more through presentations in a variety of venues,” she said.

Services include providing support, reconciliation and recovery in exoneration cases. Programs and activities include healing retreats, listening sessions and other gatherings for exonerees, crime victims, their families and others harmed, Monroe said.

They provide peer support to help families heal and rebuild their lives. They also give technical assistance and training for police, prosecutors and victim advocates on the needs of victims, and training and materials for support professionals on the post-prison needs of exonerees, she said.

Now Healing Justice is creating a committee of social work professionals to help develop opportunities and resources for social workers.

“We recognized early on that there’s a role for social workers,” Monroe said. “We have other networks. There’s one for lawyers. We see a similar network involving social workers for the post-exoneration side of these cases.”

They have worked with field social work students and intend to have a social work staff beginning this summer, she said.

Last year, Healing Justice started a partnership with the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina to create a yearlong internship for a graduate-level student.

They began collaborating this year with NASW to conduct direct outreach to help engage social workers to provide post-prison support to exonerees. And they started working with NASW chapters to develop a trained network of social work volunteers, Monroe said.

Daniel Rhodes

Healing Justice may end up hiring social work graduates or using student volunteers from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where social worker Daniel Rhodes is a professor.

Rhodes, assistant professor and BSW program director at the school’s Department of Social Work, is introducing his students to restorative justice, or community justice—the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and their communities in conjunction with law enforcement.

He also works on justice projects at the community level while teaching social work students to do the same, and he’s pushing for more courses.

Rhodes teaches community building, community organizing and community activism in his Social Work Methods II macro practice class.

“They’re taking it in their final semester, and they’re saying ‘Why didn’t we get this sooner?’” he said.

One assignment was to plan and complete a community engagement process, like speaking to the legislature or organizing a community meeting, Rhodes said.

“Three or four students got together, and one of them knows a police officer,” he said. “They’re going in to conduct and teach a circle process. I told them this is restorative justice, and you’re doing it in the community.”

The circle process, sometimes called a sentencing circle, is a community-directed process conducted in partnership with law enforcement to develop consensus on an appropriate sentencing plan that addresses the concerns of all interested parties.

“It helps if it’s incorporated within a school system to get away from kids being swept up in the (criminal justice) system, Rhodes said.

Rhodes has worked with school systems to help create restorative justice working groups, which often include the PTA, school board, law enforcement and the community.

Some schools already use this method, including James Madison University in Virginia, he said.

It’s important for social work students to learn these skills, Rhodes said.

“We can’t just focus on theory; we can’t just focus on action,” he said. “We have to have a synthesis of the two. That’s why it’s important to me to get these into our bachelor’s program.”

“We have a rich history of dealing with race and class and gender issues in our communities. I really want students to have concrete skills so when they leave the program, they’re able to go out and do these things in the community.”

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