Reflecting on Social Work’s Dilemma in Addressing the Criminal Legal System: A Single Perspective

Branden A. McLeod, PhD

The effects of the criminal legal system are ubiquitous and consequential, particularly in predominantly Black and Brown communities throughout the United States. This system’s unjust nature impacts people who are incarcerated, or previously incarcerated with a criminal record, and their families and loved ones. As human beings, we navigate and balance multiple roles, identities, and experiences, some of which are more salient than others. Personally, social work happens to be only one of my roles. I am a Black man who grew up in urban America and the father of Black teenagers.

I am a husband, son, and brother. Given my demographic descriptors and environmental contexts, I have seen the pervasiveness of the criminal legal system. It may be challenging to parse out what ingredients of my identity contributed to my decision to challenge the criminal legal system. However, I can confidently conjecture that even if I were not a social worker, I would remain compelled to push against this historically oppressive and traumatizing system. For this reason, in this statement, I share my personal views on why it is crucial to scrutinize and advocate for policies and practices to reform this system. I also share the ways I have engaged in service, advocacy, and research.

A Perspective from a Black Man who Chose to be a Social Worker

Various personal and professional experiences brought me to work on criminal (in)justice-related issues. Growing up in Philadelphia until adulthood, living in Baltimore for fourteen years, and working in Washington, D.C., have contributed to my perspectives on criminal justice issues and policing. On a personal level, I witnessed law enforcement come to my family’s aid when a close family member became a victim of community-level gun violence when I was in middle school. On the other hand, I was the victim of unnecessary and excessive use of force by Washington, D.C. Metropolitan police after graduating college. These incongruent personal experiences, combined with incessant police-driven violence and murders of black people in places where I lived and worked, and throughout the U.S., continually ignite my perspective on Black community mistrust in law enforcement.

On a professional level, social work has led me to serve individuals and work within advocacy coalitions on policy issues related to the criminal legal system. These direct service experiences included running groups for women and men in correctional facilities in Maryland, providing services such as case management and district court advocacy to support the need for mental health and substance use treatment, parenting support, and family relationship-building instead of incarceration.

These incongruent personal experiences, combined with incessant police-driven violence and murders of black people in places where I lived and worked, and throughout the U.S., continually ignite my perspective on Black community mistrust in law enforcement.

On the macro-level, I had the opportunity to engage in legislative and budgetary advocacy and policy analysis at the state and local levels, on issues such as criminal records expungement, housing, cash assistance, and other public assistance programs. Much of this work consisted of nonprofit and grassroots advocacy coalition organizing, delivering testimony, enacting campaigns, and meeting with elected and public officials to promote our policy proposals.

My past experiences allowed me to understand the necessity of and appreciation for research and evaluation. Knowledge dissemination is essential in transforming the justice system and public safety. Consequently, I pursued a doctor of philosophy in social work and became a researcher and professor. In this role, I promote social change through my scholarship and by teaching social policy and research to master’s and doctoral students.

My ongoing research examines how social policies and systems shape Black men’s well-being and their relationships with their families, with a particular focus on how these systems shape their roles as fathers. Historically, Black men are disproportionately represented in the U.S. criminal and legal systems (although, increasingly, women are incarcerated at a higher rate). My work in this area primarily investigates the intersection of fatherhood and criminal justice system involvement. Fathers who experience justice system involvement often experience stigma, discrimination, and collateral consequences. Therefore, much of my scholarship endeavors to unpack how the criminal justice system potentially attenuates fathers’ roles and analyzes the factors that mitigate, sustain, and strengthen paternal involvement and family well-being.

I teach courses on research, social policy history, policy analysis, and community-based policy practices, allowing students to explore social welfare and human rights topics. Each fall semester, I teach Policy I and Policy II courses for generalist-year and specialization-year MSW students, respectively. The Policy II course moves beyond the policy history and policy analysis administered in the generalist-year course and develops into service-learning, challenging students to use community-based policy practice skills for social change at the local and state levels. Course content is applied through policy analysis, attending political candidate forums, and participating in grassroots policy actions through semester-long task force-based policy projects. Each fall semester, a task force group of students have addressed issues related to eliminating bail, reducing sentencing, and police reform. Although most of my current efforts focus on research and teaching, I have found time to engage in state-level campaigns on pretrial justice and confinement conditions.

What Needs to Happen, and What Should Social Workers be Doing in this Area?

There has been discussion about social work’s role in addressing the criminal legal system, and I will not attempt to describe the various sides of the issue here. Nonetheless, the first phrase that comes to mind when thinking about social work’s role in change-driven endeavors is “lead from behind.” In other words, we must be sure that those who are most impacted lead the discussion in defining the problem, and constructing practice and policy solutions. Centering people who are most impacted by the problem cannot be a symbolic gesture. It is essential. If society is not clear on the root of the problem, the proposed solutions will not work. The voices, experiences, and expertise of impacted people are critical for effective policy changes and practice innovations.

Second, we are often unaware of others’ experiences and intentions. Thus, I ask, do we know how many social workers have experienced criminal legal system involvement? Do we know if and how many social workers’ family members or close acquaintances have experienced criminal legal system involvement? Of this last group of social workers, do we know how this experience impacts them?
I surmise that these questions have not been thoroughly explored.

Who is at liberty to decide if social workers should work within, reform, or fight to abolish the criminal legal system? Presently, social work seems to be engaging in critical self-reflection, an essential and appropriate step in the “professional” identity process. However, let us not forget that for some, this issue is personal.

Furthermore, should we explore these questions? Is it the profession’s role to regulate other social workers’ actions, passions, and career trajectories? To my earlier point about our multiple identities and experiences, it is challenging to determine why some social workers are pulled to this work. Who is at liberty to decide if social workers should work within, reform, or fight to abolish the criminal legal system? Presently, social work seems to be engaging in critical self-reflection, an essential and appropriate step in the “professional” identity process. However, let us not forget that for some, this issue is personal.

Finally, as of this writing, I watch on the news and social media unchecked violence and chaotic security breach at the U.S. Capitol building. I cannot help but notice and illuminate two contrasting police responses to human lives in America. On the one hand, Black protesters in Ferguson, MO, Chicago, IL, Baltimore, MD, Kenosha, WI, and countless other communities continue to exercise democracy to save Black lives. Consequently, they face state-imposed violence by law enforcement. Simultaneously, predominantly White Pro-Trump supporters and domestic terrorists enact violence against opposing groups and law enforcement, and mount insurrections in Charlottesville, VA, Kenosha, WI, our Nation’s Capitol, and across the U.S. without sufficient resistance and consequence from law enforcement or the court system. Therefore, as long as these differences persist, social workers and other concerned community members should have a seat at the table of democracy to overturn entrenched injustices in U.S. institutions.

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