Social Work & Criminal Justice

About This Site

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

The Connections Between Social Work and Criminal Justice

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 justice 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 justice 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 justice system involvement. 

As a result, social workers must be informed about and prepared to engage with issues related to the criminal justice system.  The clients we serve, the participants in our research, the communities we support, all will somehow be impacted by the criminal justice 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 justice system, and advocate for structural change, both inside and outside of the formal criminal justice 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 criminal justice has never been greater.