Featured Articles

Monday, December 8

ADVANCE: Reflections on the Role of Social Work in Criminal Justice Reform

Matthew Epperson, PhD, MSW

This article is intended to help you Advance Your Career. If you have practical experience and knowledge on career advancement (ex., leadership, networking, resume development), please consider contributing an article! Submit your article proposal online here.

My professional interest in the criminal justice system began somewhat accidentally. Soon after earning an MSW I applied for a job at a community mental health agency in Michigan only to find out during the interview that the position was to be located in the county jail. I reluctantly accepted the position and started my work as a mental health social worker in the jail, and also provided alternative to incarceration assessments for the drug court. A few years later I developed and implemented a jail diversion program for people with serious mental illnesses who had been arrested.

During those six years working in the jail I saw first-hand how criminal justice involvement disproportionately impacts people of color, people in poverty, and people with behavioral health disorders, as well as their families and communities. I fondly refer to that time in my career as my “social work boot camp.” Although my social work education fostered my commitment to work with vulnerable and oppressed populations, I felt ill-prepared to impact these social justice issues within the unique context of the criminal justice system. I wondered why I hadn’t learned more about the justice system in my MSW program as it seemed like such an important arena for social work advocacy and action.

Years later I entered a PhD program in social work and began to research these issues that stemmed from my work in the jail. I learned what I had experienced locally was part of a national problem—the exponential growth and reach of the United States criminal justice system. Mass incarceration hit a record peak in 2008 with 2.3 million individuals in jails and prisons and over 5 million on probation or parole. Our country bears the unfortunate distinction of being the world leader in incarceration, holding only 5% of the world’s population but housing a fourth of its prisoners.

And those that are most impacted by criminal justice involvement face multiple forms of social disadvantage. African Americans make up 13% of the general population but comprise 40% of all prisoners. Approximately 14% of those involved in the criminal justice system, over 1 million individuals, have a serious mental illness. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in incarceration settings is five times the rate in the general population. Nearly 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. Although 75% of prisoners are in need of substance abuse services, only 11% receive any form of treatment behind bars. The list of social injustices goes on and on.

How did we get here, and what is social work’s role in counteracting these trends? Social work once held considerable influence in criminal justice reform, from facilitating the development of juvenile courts at the beginning of the twentieth century, to advancing rehabilitative sentencing approaches during the 1950s and 60s when approximately half of all probation and parole officers were trained as social workers. But most experts agree that our profession largely retreated from the criminal justice system during the punitive era of mass incarceration that began in the 1970s and has continued for nearly forty years. The lack of attention to criminal justice issues is apparent in some of my own research which finds that only 22% of MSW programs in the US have a course dedicated to criminal justice issues and a mere 5% of programs provide a concentration or specialization in criminal justice (Epperson et al., 2013). Given that we have done little in recent decades to train social workers in the area of criminal justice, it is not surprising that our profession has not recently held a position of leadership in shaping the way criminal justice operates in the US (Wilson, 2010).

In spite of our recent history, I am hopeful that social work is beginning to re-enter the field of criminal justice in influential ways. There appears to be a growing interest in criminal justice within schools of social work; a website directory that I helped develop lists over 100 social work scholars across the country whose research and teaching in criminal justice is beginning to shape the next generation of social workers. As an assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, I am inspired by the level of interest that our students have in activism, direct practice, policy, and research to make our criminal justice system more socially just. Our nation may also be at a tipping point in mass incarceration which marks a historic opportunity for social work to fully engage in efforts to alter the criminal justice system’s overreliance on incarceration (Pettus-Davis and Epperson, 2014). To this end, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare has recently identified decarceration as part of their Grand Challenge for Social Work Initiative.

Building on this momentum, I urge the National Association of Social Workers and state chapters to renew their commitment to criminal justice by coalescing interest and promoting the role of social work in criminal justice reform among their members and constituents. Through these efforts, we raise the likelihood that social workers will actively interface with and positively influence the criminal justice system regardless of their area of practice. Our involvement with the criminal justice system should not occur by accident, as was my experience, but because of our professional identity and intentional training and advocacy.

As a social worker who has worked in clinical practice, administration, teaching, and research, I can’t think of a better profession than social work to lead in transforming our criminal justice system. Not only is this work in line with our ethical obligation, but our profession’s person-in-environment perspective, leadership in evidence-based practices, and history in social reform uniquely qualifies social work to take on the serious problems within the justice system. Whether or not we rise to this professional challenge remains to be seen, but I am committed to doing my part and I hope that you are as well.


Epperson, M.W., Roberts, L.E., Ivanoff, A., Tripodi, S.J., & Gilmer, C.N. (2013). To what extent is criminal justice content specifically addressed in MSW programs? Journal of Social Work Education, 49 (1), 96–107.

Pettus-Davis, C. & Epperson, M.W.(2014, June).From mass incarceration to smart decarceration. American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, Grand Challenges Initiative Concept Paper. St. Louis, MO: Center for Social Development, George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University in St. Louis.

Wilson, M. (2010). Criminal justice social work in the United States: Adapting to new challenges. Washington, DC. NASW Center for Workforce Studies.

Matthew Epperson, PhD, MSW, is assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. He teaches courses in direct social work practice as well as a course he designed entitled, “Criminal Justice and Social Work Interface.” Matthew’s primary research goal is to develop, implement, and evaluate interventions for criminal justice-involved persons with serious mental illnesses. He has over fifteen years of post–MSW clinical and administrative social work experience in mental health, substance abuse, and criminal justice settings. 

Posted on 12/08/14 at 08:00 AM


Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.

Photo Gallery »

  • 06-07-19

    June 2019 Chapter Board Leadership Meeting

  • 06-14-19

    LSW/LCSW Review Course 06.14.19 (DePaul Center)

  • 06-17-19

    Clinical Social Work Supervision II - Spring 2019 (DePaul)

Calendar »

Become a member of NASW today!


Visit the CEU Opportunities page to find free CEU events for NASW Illinois members!

Continuing Edcuation

Consider joining one of our social networking groups.