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Criminal Justice Matters: Preface

Criminal justice matters, especially law and order, garner much public attention. Law and Order, The First 48, CSI and Criminal Minds are among the nation’s most popular TV shows, with captive audiences eager each week to see crime solved in sixty minutes. Political elections have been won or lost based on who had the toughest “get tough on crime” platform, or who was perceived to be lenient on criminals, and mass incarceration has risen as a salient topic for intellectual debates and policy deliberations. The limited success of different measures taken to curb illegal activity, the differential surveillance and enforcement of laws in and with different communities, along with the large racial disparities in the people who are locked up in prisons, and subsequently locked out of opportunities for advancement and well-being, have long been the focus of groups calling for criminal justice reform.

The calls for change gained momentum in the summer of 2020 when George Floyd, a black man suspected of trying to pass a fake $20 bill, was held down with a chokehold and murdered by a policeman in full view of witnesses. The murder sparked Black Lives Matter social protests throughout the country and abroad as justice activists called for widespread changes in policing; criminal justice processing, sanctions, and reform; and several other areas of social control.

Social workers and social work educators have joined the discussions and calls for criminal justice reform with an energy and interest seldom seen before. Demands are diverse, with some focused on defunding the police. While some groups take this to mean reallocating funds for tanks, military weapons, etc. from police budgets to affordable housing, mental health services and youth programs, others are calling for the removal of police on campuses, in schools, and from government buildings. Other advocates have focused on expediting criminal justice reforms such as eliminating the money bail system, legalizing marijuana, and/or reducing charges for marijuana offenses. Still others have taken a much broader stance and are calling for the social work profession to disinvest and refrain from all criminal justice work and activity. The latter includes not working with or in police departments, not staffing programs or providing services in jails and prisons and not taking funding from criminal justice agencies such as the National Institute of Justice and the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority.

Seminars and forums have been conducted to bring social workers with divergent points of view together to discuss areas of commonalities and differences, and to deliberate on directions for the profession. Many meetings focus on what we should or should not do, or what should be done by others. Few meetings engage in factfinding to identify, describe, and reflect on what social workers are actually doing in the criminal justice area and what difference, if any, it makes. The idea of writing this monograph grew from discussions at the Jane Addams Center for Social Policy and Research (Policy Center) about current debates and what, given the criminal justice focus of much of our work, we should do, if anything, in response to the calls for disinvestment. We decided to share our personal experiences working and volunteering in the criminal justice field.

In this publication, seven Policy Center staff and faculty affiliates describe what they do and have done in matters of criminal justice, and why this work is important to them. These self-reflections are a testament of what we do; they also reveal who we are and the difference we want to make. They provide guidance for our work. We hope they are also helpful to others who are thinking about ways to impact the justice system and the persons it affects most directly.

Creasie Finney Hairston, PhD
Director, Jane Addams Center for Social Policy and Research
Dean, Jane Addams College of Social Work