Social workers key players in criminal justice system

Betsy BibenBetsy Biben, right, chief of the Office of Rehabilitation and Development in the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, meets with her staff, which includes forensic social workers.

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

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.”

For those interested in entering the field, Biben suggested a graduate social work school curriculum that focuses on child and adolescent development, trauma, mental illness, psychopharmacology, intellectual disabilities and criminal justice. She said internships with a state, federal or county public defender’s office can aid in determining whether the work may be a good fit.

Social work in the district attorney’s office

Just as defendants need social workers to help them through the legal system, district attorneys’ offices depend on social workers to aid victims of crimes.

Mary McKevitzSocial worker Mary McKevitz is the director of counseling for the New York County District Attorney’s Office. The social workers in this office are often called upon to ease the distress of recent crime victims.

“A lot of victims come to us in a desperate state,” she said. “We first provide crisis intervention and short-term counseling.” In other cases, months may pass before a crime victim seeks help, she said.

“We do an assessment of their immediate needs, and based on that make recommendations and referrals,” McKevitz said.

Because a majority of crime victims know their attackers personally, having social workers on staff helps victims process their feelings, and this, in turn, helps the prosecuting attorneys in administrating justice.

“There are psychosocial dynamics at play,” McKevitz said of victim-defendant relationships. “Without our efforts, though, these victims would be left to fend for themselves. We play a critical role in the criminal process.”

McKevitz also sees social work’s role with the DA’s office as a chance to help a victim avoid more serious threats in the future.

“We have an opportunity to intervene when things become critical,” she said. “The vast majority of victims are appreciative of the services we offer. Oftentimes, when helping these victims, they come away feeling better about the legal process. There is a positive reassurance in what we are doing. It’s a win-win.”

Social workers also guide victims through the legal proceedings and help them draft victim impact statements that can be used at a defendant’s sentencing and parole board hearing, she said.

McKevitz noted that her job is ideal for someone who is resilient in working with distressed populations.

For those interested in working for a DA’s office, “People should take a course in domestic violence and gain knowledge in the criminal justice process,” she said, adding that her clinical practice courses in trauma, policy and social welfare have been the most helpful in doing her job.

It’s the fast pace of the DA’s office and the mix of different disciplines working together toward a common goal that McKevitz finds most appealing about her work. She said it is especially rewarding to play a role in making a difference in the crime victim’s life.

“We have an impact,” she said.