Taking on Criminal Justice Matters
Charles Hounmenou, PhD
body of article
For over a century, the field of social work has served as a critical influence on the criminal justice system towards greater social justice. By advocating for the human rights of system-involved youth, adult offenders, and sexual assault and domestic violence victims, social workers have played a key role in criminal justice reform. In addition, social workers have held key roles in probation departments, state and federal correction facilities, and addiction treatment programs, where they have been able to influence criminal justice policy towards greater social justice. One groundbreaking contribution that social work pioneers made to the field of criminal justice was the creation of the first juvenile court in 1899 in Cook County, Illinois, thanks to the advocacy of the Hull-House settlement house’s leaders, led by Jane Addams. Following in the footsteps of these past leaders, social work scholars have engaged in research highlighting human rights issues in the criminal justice system and advocating for reform. A substantial part of my scholarly work as a social work educator and researcher has dealt with major criminal justice issues such as community policing, prison reform and human rights of detainees, and human trafficking.
Social workers have held key roles in probation departments, state and federal correction facilities, and addiction treatment programs, where they have been able to influence criminal justice policy towards greater social justice
My Past Work in Criminal Justice
My past work in the area of criminal justice encompasses the following initiatives and activities: collaborating with the first police accountability grassroots organization in the U.S. and documenting five decades of their advocacy for citizen review of police in a book; working in partnership with the first prison reform grassroots organization in the U.S. and documenting five decades of their international prison reform work; publishing and presenting on the human rights of detainees in police lockups; and conducting extensive research on human trafficking, a major challenge for the criminal justice system in any country.
From 2008 to 2012, I worked in the arena of community policing with Citizens Alert, a grassroots organization created in the wake of the murder of Fred Hampton on December 4, 1969 by the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Hampton was the chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the deputy chairman of the national BPP. Led by dedicated volunteers who envisioned justice for all Chicago’s citizens, Citizens Alert was central to all major changes in police accountability in Chicago from the early 1970s to the 2010s. I also played a key part in the transfer of the invaluable Citizens Alert archives to the University of Illinois Chicago Library. More important, my 2012 publication Justice Advocates: Citizens Alert and Police Accountability describes the long history of incidents and community actions that led to pioneering police accountability changes in Chicago, and the central role Citizens Alert played in those reforms. This book has remained the only historical document to date that highlights the great impact of Citizens Alert on police accountability in Chicago and beyond.
In prison reform, I collaborated with CURE International (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants), the first grassroots community organization advocating for prison reform in the U.S. My 2014 publication Justice Advocates: CURE and Prison Reform documents the historic prison reform advocacy led by CURE, stressing its accomplishments and distinctive contributions to prison reform nationally and internationally from the early 1970s to the 2010s. At the core of this document are CURE’s strategies, campaigns, and mobilizing efforts that led to major reform legislation, new programs and changes in correctional practices. I was a co-founder of CURE-Illinois, a state chapter of CURE, in 2012. Moreover, for a few years now, I have been a detention center observer for the John Howard Association, a statewide organization that monitors the human rights of detainees in Illinois.
In 2012, I published the first peer-reviewed article of its kind to explore the human rights of detainees in police lockups and the role community organizations can play in upholding those rights. In this well-read article, I reviewed major approaches of citizen reviews of police, and conceptualized two types of grassroots police lockup monitoring models reflecting on the model of police accountability advocated by Citizens Alert. In addition, I wrote a technical report on the international standards for detainees in prisons, jails, and police lockups, which has been used by lawyers and detainees in the U.S. as well as in countries such as countries like Canada and Australia. I presented this report at an international conference on police reform in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2011. I also contributed to criminal justice in the scholarly arena by serving as academic editor for the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation for two years.
My great interest in examining criminal justice issues affecting vulnerable, oppressed populations is further illustrated by over 12 years of scholarly work related to human trafficking. Due to its hidden, illegal, and criminal aspects, as well as its traumatic effects on victims, human trafficking is a major concern for both the social work field and the criminal justice system. In my 2009 study on the involvement of a statewide coalition in the implementation of human trafficking policy, part of my findings described criminal justice stakeholders’ efforts to prevent human trafficking, protect victims, and prosecute trafficking suspects. Additionally, two technical reports I wrote on human trafficking have been among the top resources used in awareness campaigns and training of law enforcement in Illinois during the last six years. In my 2014 research on child sex trafficking in Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger, I sought input from key stakeholders including service providers, educators, and criminal justice system leaders (i.e., police commissioners and judges) about challenges facing child victims of sex trafficking experience. Two of the articles resulting from this study highlight major concerns about experiences of child victims in encounters with the police, who sometimes treat children in the sex trade as criminals.
My Current Work in Criminal Justice
My current work on human trafficking primarily focuses on criminal issues. For instance, in the summer of 2020, I completed a mixed methods study exploring the experiences of private investigators (PIs) engaged in anti-trafficking work. This pioneering research shows the distinctive strengths and skills PIs bring to human trafficking investigations, including surveillance, advanced interviewing skills, skip tracing, infiltration of criminal groups, and victim-centered investigative approaches. PIs could be a missing link that law enforcement need to be more successful in investigations of human trafficking and recovery of victims. One of my current project proposals is a continuation of the aforementioned study. I plan to expand the knowledge about PIs and law enforcement’s experiences of collaborating on human trafficking investigations, as well as law enforcement’s perceptions of PIs. In addition to my research activities, I have had significant input in the criminal justice area. For instance, as a member of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council’s Anti-Child Trafficking Workgroup since 2019, I have helped the group explore approaches to understanding, identifying, and addressing child trafficking. The workgroup explores obstacles service providers face in partnering to create better outcomes for youth at risk or victims of trafficking across the state.
Significance of My Contributions to Criminal Justice Reform
My work about criminal justice issues is significant because I strongly believe that the human rights of every individual, no matter their origin or background, must be protected and respected. Thus, I have empathy for vulnerable groups such as people of color, detainees, and human trafficking victims, who experience injustices at various levels of the criminal justice system. Consequently, I am motivated to use my expertise to contribute to services and policies that aim to improve the treatment and situations of these vulnerable groups.
My scholarly work about criminal justice is noteworthy first, because it illustrates major contributions social work professionals can make to the criminal justice area. Second, I tend to examine social justice issues that have traditionally received limited research attention. Thus, I draw criminal justice stakeholders’ attention to innovative ways to protect the human rights of oppressed groups. The results of my empirical data-driven work are widely recognized and used for policy and law-making anti-trafficking efforts. For example, my research reports on human trafficking have often been used to craft anti-trafficking policy in Illinois and to train law enforcement. My recent research on the knowledge and ability of private investigators to fight against human trafficking opens doors for promising strategies of interagency collaboration with law enforcement agencies to investigate this global problem and rescue the victims.
Few social workers are drawn to major areas of criminal justice such as community policing, prison reform, human rights of detainees, and human trafficking…Though our profession claims to advocate for social justice and human rights, most of us are reluctant to tackle criminal justice issues affecting the voiceless and the oppressed in our society.
Implications for Social Work
Few social workers are drawn to major areas of criminal justice such as community policing, prison reform, human rights of detainees, and human trafficking. This is reflected in the very limited research that social workers have conducted in these areas and/or the limited attention traditionally given to these areas in social work curricula. Though our profession claims to advocate for social justice and human rights, most of us are reluctant to tackle criminal justice issues affecting the voiceless and the oppressed in our society. When social work professionals fail to challenge injustices in the criminal justice system or miss advocating for criminal justice reform and police accountability, it is fair to argue that they become involuntary accomplices of criminal justice policies that oppress the vulnerable groups whom they are committed and trained to empower.
My engaged research and services related to the underexplored social issues mentioned above could enthuse fellow social work scholars to become more involved in the field of criminal justice. The murder of George Floyd in 2020 blatantly exposed our lack of preparedness to actively challenge systemic police brutality that violates the human rights of the clients and communities we work with. Social work education programs in the U.S. have yet to respond to recent calls for social workers to help bring about actual police reform. The recent events of police use of deadly force have provided us a window of opportunity to have bold, proactive input in police reform. One way social work education programs in the United States could demonstrate their efforts for criminal justice reform would be by integrating human rights perspectives in their core curricula. Overall, it is high time more social work scholars took an active interest in the field of criminal justice.