Social Work & the Criminal Legal System

About This Site

The purpose of the Social Work and the Criminal Legal System web site is to promote social work research and teaching focusing on the criminal legal system, broadly defined. We do this by: 1) Promoting networking among social work academics who do research on or teach about the criminal legal system via a directory of interest areas and contact information; and 2) Providing instructional resources for social work faculty interested in teaching about issues related to the criminal legal system.  

The Connections Between Social Work and the Criminal Legal System

Social work is a profession dedicated to social justice, working with vulnerable and marginalized populations, and advocating for systems change. Nearly 13 million adults experience some form of incarceration in the U.S. each year, and over 70 million people are subject to the collateral consequences of having a criminal record. Individuals who are involved with the criminal legal system are among some of the most marginalized, often struggling with poverty, addiction, mental illness, racism, discrimination, and service systems that create barriers to resources. Racial inequities abound in the criminal legal system, with Black adults incarcerated at a rate more than five times that of White adults; in some states, Latinx individuals are incarcerated at rates three to four times as high as Whites. LGBTQ+ youth and adults, and particularly transgender women of color, are at increased risk of arrest and incarceration. The proportion of incarcerated people with serious mental illnesses is more than double the rate in the general population, and approximately three fourths of incarcerated people struggle with a substance use disorder. And across the country, many communities, particularly economically disadvantaged Black and Brown communities, have been ravaged by the negative effects of criminal legal system involvement. 

As a result, social workers must be informed about and prepared to engage with issues related to the criminal legal system.  The clients we serve, the participants in our research, the communities we support, all will somehow be impacted by the criminal legal system. Social workers are needed to provide services to justice-involved individuals, to develop and evaluate new practice and policy interventions, and to collaborate with community systems to envision new forms of justice. Social workers must be prepared to recognize and address inequities in the criminal legal system, and advocate for structural change, both inside and outside of the formal criminal legal system. Additionally, Promote Smart Decarceration has been identified as a grand challenge for the field of social work. The potential for social work to play an instrumental role in systems change as it relates to the criminal legal system has never been greater.