Criminal justice social workers --- or prison social workers as they are sometimes called --- are social workers whose clients are, have been or may soon be incarcerated. Social workers in criminal justice settings have some two basic ethical and professional obligations: to ameliorate the mental health needs of their clients, to return individuals to the community who will be productive, and serve the interests of public safety.
In America’s criminal justice system, a clear need to provide rehabilitative services and change policy to better help inmates. Prisons are a challenging place to work and social workers have had to fight in order to win a measure of influence in this complicated environment.
Until around 1970s, incarceration rates in American prisons
were relatively stable and comparable to those in Europe. Over the last few decades, incarceration rates have increased seven-fold, making America the world’s leading jailer. According to the National Association of Social Workers
, this rise in incarceration has produced only a ten percent drop in crime. Meanwhile, approximately two out of three people released from prison are rearrested within three years. Social workers can play a key role in reducing recidivism.
Criminal justice social work includes:
Leadership of Prison Social Workers
- Providing mental health and substance abuse counseling;
- Finding alternatives to incarceration, such as rehabilitation programs for low-level offenders;
- Helping formerly incarcerated individuals negotiate successful reentry into society;
- Working with clients to change patterns of criminal behavior;
- Advocating for clients within the criminal justice system;
- Advocating for policies that address both clients’ interests and need for public safety;
- Working with communities to eliminate the root causes of criminality.
Social workers have worked in prisons since the creation of the profession in 1904, according to the NASW report on Criminal Justice Social Work in the United States
. However, because social workers have had a limited role in setting criminal justice policy and legislation, they have also had a limited impact on both their clients and public safety as a whole. According to the NASW, social workers are currently making progress in the fight for a more central role in criminal justice policy-making, partly due to the recognized need for prison reform. If social workers can assume a larger degree of leadership and influence over criminal justice policy, they could better serve both their direct clients and public safety.
Compensation for Prison Social Workers
The median salary for criminal justice social workers was $56,300 in 2010, while half of all criminal justice social workers made between $43,000 and $75,000, according to the NASW
. These numbers place the earnings of criminal justice social workers just above the median for the profession as a whole.
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