Report Stresses Need for Criminal Reform Leadership

A new report by NASW’s Center for Workforce Studies outlines the need for social workers to help lead the charge to reform the U.S. criminal justice system.

Criminal Justice Social Work in the United States: Adapting to New Challenges (PDF) identifies how the U.S. criminal justice system currently operates and how it may benefit by examining Scotland’s new criminal justice model.

“The term ‘criminal justice social worker’ is not widely used by most social workers in the U.S.,” said Melvin Wilson, manager of workforce, development and training at NASW. “The report was drafted in part to show how, in Scotland, the role of criminal justice social work is well defined and fully accepted as a major function in their criminal justice system.”

To some degree, the approach to criminal justice social work in the U.S. is fragmented. For example, it lacks national standards and policies/procedures that are essential for ensuring that providers apply evidence-based interventions, and nationally accepted service delivery models, Wilson explained. Criminal justice social work — or CJSW — involves frontline staff and administrators in criminal justice settings, which include a broad spectrum of public and private agencies, according to the report.

Wilson said Scotland decided several years ago to infuse CSJW into its overall criminal justice operation. “This was done to help reduce the country’s high recidivism rate,” he said.

In Scotland, CJSW is considered a valuable resource due in part to its highly structured policies and procedures that are integrated throughout the system.

While CJSW in Scotland is an independent entity, it works in close coordination with the country’s court and prison systems to ensure that social work services are provided at all levels.

There, social workers have a say with the highest level of decision-makers; members of Scotland’s Association of Directors of Social Work serve on the National Advisory Board of the country’s criminal justice system.

CJSW in Scotland aims to reduce overlapping or duplicative responsibilities among agencies along the criminal justice continuum, according to the report.

The Workforce Studies report states that there are some similarities in the evolution of the two countries’ need to modify their approach to addressing burgeoning prison populations. One of the similarities was the recognition that there is an increased need for highly trained social services professionals to work with offenders while they are in prison and in community-based programs that serve offenders when they return to their communities.

The differences between the two countries include the fact that in Scotland, CJSW has equal standing with other professionals in drafting policy, conducting management responsibilities and having a say in the judicial process. CJSW in Scotland is a government-sponsored component of the national criminal justice system and members serve as key decision-makers.

“This report is not to say what is right and what is wrong,” Wilson said. “It is done to show that we need social work to step out into the leadership role.”

The report points out that the U.S. could benefit from the Scottish CJSW’s strong emphasis on implementing and institutionalizing national standards.

“The absence of such a national consensus on service delivery standards in the U.S. leads to a hodgepodge of approaches to providing core psychosocial services for a population that has multiple needs,” the report states.

“There is a consensus to move toward nationwide standards in criminal justice and we want to show how social workers can be a part of the change in the broad criminal justice system,” Wilson said. “It’s important that social work be at the table of discussion on criminal justice reform. We want our voices heard.”

Wilson said the document is timely since federal lawmakers have heeded the call to re-examine the entire U.S. criminal justice system. At press time, the 111th Congress continued to examine the National Criminal Justice Commission Act (HR 5143, S714). It calls for the creation of a bipartisan commission to review the nation’s criminal justice system.

In addition, NASW has encouraged passage of the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act (HR 4080, S 2772). This proposal, which was still in committee at press time, authorizes the attorney general to offer grants to states, local and territorial governments or Indian tribes to analyze and improve the cost-effectiveness of spending on prisons, jails and community corrections.

NASW also backed the Second Chance Act, which was passed into law in 2008. It supplies funding for state and local prisoner re-entry demonstration projects.

“We want social work to be properly positioned as the criminal justice system in the U.S. is evolving,” Wilson said.