Building Social Capacity

Promoting Behavioral Health with Community Partners to Reduce Criminal Justice Involvement

Principal Investigator: Matt Epperson, PhD, MSW – Smart Decarceration Project, University of Chicago

Funder: UChicago Institute for Translational Medicine

Study Period: 2017-2018

Building Social Capacity to Address Behavioral Health Needs and Reduce Incarceration in Underserved Chicago Communities

Principal Investigator: Matt Epperson, PhD, MSW – Smart Decarceration Project, University of Chicago

Funder: University of Chicago Women’s Board

Study Period: 2018-2019


Over the past 40 years, many urban communities have experienced a devastating combination of inadequate capacity to address behavioral health needs and the over-criminalization of their residents. As a result, mass incarceration has yielded concentrated damage in poor and minority communities. In order for these trends to be reversed, it is essential for underserved communities to develop capacity to generate and sustain adequate behavioral health services – and other community supports – to reduce the use of incarceration. However, there is little to no evidence base defining how social capacity can be built in communities to lessen incarceration.

From 2017 to 2018, the Smart Decarceration Project (SDP) was funded by the UChicago Institute for Translational Medicine, to develop a social capacity framework that provides a structure for understanding the concentration of incarceration, as well as racial and behavioral health disparities among the incarcerated. Based on individual and focus group interviews with Chicago community stakeholders during a one year period, the research team developed a social capacity framework, which describes key social capacity concepts to address behavioral health needs and reduce incarceration in local communities.

In 2018, SDP was funded by the University of Chicago Women’s Board to develop and pilot test a social capacity assessment tool (SoCAT) based on the social capacity framework in order to effectively measure multiple dimensions of social capacity specific to a community.

From 2018 to 2019, SDP assembled a Community Advisory Board (CAB) representing key stakeholders who live or work in Austin and Washington Park, two high-incarceration neighborhoods in Chicago. Members of the research team administered the surveys during a nine week period from March to May 2019.  The results of the surveys were presented in one final CAB meeting in each community, during which the CAB members reviewed responses and indicated what information they found to be most valuable to their communities.

To our knowledge, this study represents the first effort at quantifying social capacity needs and strengths at the community level in an effort to create data that could guide the development of tailored community-level interventions designed specifically to build social capacity and reduce the use of incarceration.

Read the full Executive Summary of our research here.