Social Work and Criminal Legal Change: The Need for Multiple Approaches and Perspectives
Aaron Gottlieb, PhD
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As a researcher, educator, and community member, I spend much of my time working on issues related to criminal legal reform. In my research, I have largely focused on what factors lead to criminal legal involvement and how we can change policies and practices to reduce our use of punitive approaches and mitigate the harm that they inflict. For instance, some of my research has documented the role that historical legacies of slavery play in felony case sentencing today, and how current reforms have reduced incarceration rates while failing to address (and perhaps increasing) racial disparities in incarceration. In my work as an educator, I have developed a course specifically on criminal legal policy that provides social workers with an understanding of how our criminal legal system is tied to structural inequity, and the strengths and weaknesses of specific criminal legal policy reforms. As a community member, I have been active on issues relating to police accountability by working on an ordinance that would create a civilian oversight body and on Chicago’s consent decree. This summer I was appointed to Chicago’s Use of Force Consent Decree Working Group, a group tasked with providing recommendations to the Chicago Police Department on how they should improve their use of force policies.
Working to change the criminal legal system is important to me because the system is profoundly unfair and inhumane. Since the criminal legal system is where people end up after many other systems have failed them, I feel a particular responsibility as a social worker to work to change this punitive system. My privilege as a White man has made it so that my experiences with police are far different than the experiences of my Black, Latinx, and Indigenous brothers and sisters. I feel an obligation to use this privilege to help change a system that oppresses Black, Indigenous, and people of color and advantages people like me. I consider myself an abolitionist and want us to live in a country where the criminal legal system is used as little as possible and ideally not at all. This may lead some to question: if you consider yourself an abolitionist, why do you spend time working within the system on criminal legal reform? I do this for a number of reasons.
I consider myself an abolitionist and want us to live in a country where the criminal legal system is used as little as possible and ideally not at all. This may lead some to question: if you consider yourself an abolitionist, why do you spend time working within the system on criminal legal reform? I do this for a number of reasons.
First, I believe, and history supports, that change generally occurs incrementally. We currently incarcerate a larger share of our population than any country in the world, so it seems unlikely to me that we would go from that reality to a new reality where no one is incarcerated and where police do not exist. This does not mean that social workers who believe in abolition should not push for it.
I believe they should, but I also believe we need some social workers to work within these systems to reform them in the short term, so that we move closer to our long-term vision of justice. If people who do not have social work values are responsible for all the decisions within the criminal legal system, we will continue to see oppressive criminal legal policies and practices.
Second, having evidence about what works and what does not work in criminal legal reform is critical for sustaining long-term change in the criminal legal system. Because harsh criminal legal policies are the norm, ineffective reforms that move away from punitiveness but lead to other negative outcomes (for instance an increase in crime) are likely to lead to backlash that may prevent additional reforms from being implemented. In fact, the perception (although inaccurate) in the 1970s that “rehabilitation” efforts did not work was an important driver of mass incarceration. It is for this reason that much of my research focuses on identifying criminal legal reform policies that are effective.
Third, tens of millions of people are entangled in the criminal legal system every year. And this criminal legal system involvement has profound collateral consequences and negative implications for individuals’ liberty, health, and economic situation, and also negatively impacts the families and communities of those who are enmeshed in the criminal legal system. Do we not have an obligation to work to help improve the lives of people who are currently harmed by the criminal legal system? I believe we do because, if not, we are allowing people who are currently incarcerated to suffer.
Do we not have an obligation to work to help improve the lives of people who are currently harmed by the criminal legal system? I believe we do because, if not, we are allowing people who are currently incarcerated to suffer.
Given this, what should social work’s role be in the criminal legal system? It is my view that we need a multi-pronged approach. We need people who support abolition and keep pushing the conversation forward. And we also need people working within our current political reality and within the current system to improve the criminal legal system so that it does less harm. Further, we need to address every point in the criminal legal system, including policing, pretrial detention, indigent defense, prosecution, sentencing, conditions of confinement, and community reentry/parole. Regardless of what approach we choose to take as individuals, we need to be guided by a respect for every person’s humanity, a desire to reduce harm and support healing, a recognition of the structural factors that lead to criminal legal involvement, and an emphasis on treating all people equitably. Perhaps most importantly, we need to lead the fight by centering the lives and voices of people who are directly impacted. The journey is long and hard, and we have so much work to do, but we will get there together.