Reverse social work's neglect of adults involved in the criminal justice system: the intersection and an agenda.

Author:Pettus-Davis, Carrie
Position:GUEST EDITORIAL - Editorial

Social work has neglected adults involved in the criminal justice system for nearly four decades. This neglect has been attributed to value conflicts between social work and criminal justice professionals, perceived limited effects of interventions with adults involved in the criminal justice system, and lack of social work training in services to those involved in the criminal justice system (Scheyett, Pettus-Davis, McCarter, & Bringham, 2012). Meanwhile, the number of adults under criminal justice supervision has increased sevenfold. Nearly 24 million people cycle through the U.S. criminal justice system each year. On any given day, 2.3 million people are held in state and federal prisons or local jails, and more than 7.2 million people are under some form of criminal justice supervision (Glaze, Bonczar, & Zhang, 2010; Sabol & West, 2010).

Fear-driven and conceptually devoid policies adopted since the 1970s have turned America into a carceral state with criminal justice supervision rates higher than those in most nations in the world (Gottschalk, 2011). The reach of criminal justice involvement extends well beyond the sentence for a crime committed. During the time period that social work disengaged from the criminal justice system, policies proliferated throughout the United States to exclude justice-involved adults from conventional means of citizenry. A felony conviction permanently bans adults from a multitude of housing, employment, education, social service, and civic participation (for example, voting) opportunities. These exclusionary policies impede social mobility and propagate intergenerational transmission of inequality (Wakefield & Uggen, 2010).

Despite the enormous implications for social justice, social workers remain silent. Therefore, it seems important to remind fellow social workers that almost every facet of social work intersects with criminal justice.


More than 60% of prisoners in the United States are racial or ethnic minorities (Sentencing Project, 2011). Arrest rates for African Americans are double the national average (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011). African Americans make up half of the prison and parole populations and one-third of the probation population but only 12% of the general population (Glaze et al., 2010; Sabol & West, 2010). If current trends continue, one in three African American men and one in six Hispanic men will go to prison at some point during their lifetime, compared with one in 17 white men (Bonczar, 2003).


Nearly half of prisoners in 2004 had been in poverty in the year prior to their arrest (Wheelock & Uggen, 2006). The rate of homelessness among prisoners is four to six times the rate of homelessness among the general population (Greenberg & Rosenheck, 2008). Earning potential is severely limited by involvement in the criminal justice system. A history of incarceration reduces annual income for men by 40% (Western & Pettit, 2010). Parental incarceration imposes hardship on families and negatively affects the economic and residential stability of children (Geller, Garfinkel, Cooper, & Mincy, 2009).


Adults involved in the criminal justice system report poor educational histories. On average, only 13% of jail inmates have more than a high school education. Two-thirds of state prisoners and 44% of jail inmates have less than a high school education. Compared with 18% of the general population, one-third of adult probationers did not complete high school (Harlow, 2003; James, 2004).


More than 2.7 million children have a parent in jail or prison (Western & Pettit, 2010). Parental incarceration is related to aggression, delinquency, anxiety, and depression in children (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2011). National data indicate that at least 12.5% of children reported to child welfare authorities had parents who had been arrested (Phillips, Burns, Wagner, & Barth, 2004). African American children have a 25.1% risk of having their father incarcerated, compared with a 3.6% risk among white children (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2011).


Incarceration rates of veterans rose by 53% between 1985 and 2000. Veteran prisoners are more likely to have committed violent crimes, to have known their victims (especially relatives), and to serve longer sentences, and they are substantially older upon incarceration than nonveteran prisoners. One-quarter of veterans in jails had mental illnesses, compared with 15% of nonveteran jail inmates, and more than one-third of veterans in jail had a history of alcohol abuse (Mumola, 2000; Noonan & Mumola, 2007).


The rate of substance use disorders for people on probation or parole is four times that of the general population (Taxman, Young, Wiersema, Rhodes, & Mitchell, 2007). An estimated 65% of U.S. prisoners meet Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition diagnostic criteria for substance abuse or dependence (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 2010). In 2002, two-thirds of jail inmates were found to be substance abusers...

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