Promote Smart Decarceration: Background

A prolonged era of mass incarceration has resulted in extraordinary rates of imprisonment, making the United States the world leader in incarceration. The effects of mass incarceration are particularly profound for some of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups – people in poverty, racial minorities, and people with behavioral health disorders. When a person is incarcerated, their children, families, and communities also suffer. There is no more pressing social justice issue in the United States today than effectively undoing mass incarceration and its wide-reaching effects.

But the United States is at a unique moment in history. After nearly 40 years of exponential growth in jails and prison populations, mass incarceration is increasingly financially unsustainable, socially unacceptable, and politically untenable. The era of mass incarceration is nearing its end. What will follow the era of mass incarceration is likely to be an era of decarceration, or a marked reduction of the incarcerated population. The grand challenge for social work is to take full advantage of the opportunity to Promote Smart Decarceration – decarceration that is effective, sustainable, and socially just. Smart decarceration is marked by three interrelated outcomes:

  1. Substantially reduce the incarcerated population in jails and prisons
  2. Redress racial, economic, and behavioral health disparities within the criminal justice system
  3. Maximize public safety and well-being

The Smart Decarceration Initiative is leading social work’s grand challenge – Promote Smart Decarceration. Guided by our profession’s social justice orientation and commitment to working with vulnerable populations, social work scholars and practitioners should be leaders in efforts to reform the criminal justice system in the era of decarceration. Decarceration entails more than simply not incarcerating – it involves developing an array of more effective and socially just alternatives to replace incarceration. This work provides an opportunity to engage and mobilize social work scholars and practitioners in developing and executing an actionable agenda for smart decarceration.

Working groups participate in bi-monthly exchanges to:

  • Identify core activities relevant to the working group focus area
  • Develop actionable steps to execute core activities
  • Establish preliminary timeline for activity completion
  • Seek opportunities for collaborative work across groups
  • Implement action steps relevant to working group focus area

Grand Challenges for Social Work Invites You to Go•Grander!