In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Criminal Justice

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals

Social Work Criminal Justice
Margaret Severson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0120


The term “criminal justice” encompasses a huge area of thought and action relevant to the development of the criminal justice system in America, including the evolution of prisoner management and treatment and rehabilitation approaches, the development of prisoner/civil rights case law, and the humanistic appraisals of the operations and evaluations of the system in its many facets. Indeed, the criminal justice system is enormously complex, starting with police involvement, moving through the criminal courts to adjudication, to sentencing and incarceration in a jail or prison or to community supervision, and ending, in most cases, in some supervised form of reintegration into society. More total persons and more women are incarcerated in the United States than in any other country in the world—a problem that has not gone unnoticed across the globe in far less privileged societies and by many social policy theorists and practitioners. By 2012 more than two million adults were incarcerated in jails and prisons in the United States, and another five million persons were living under terms of post-release supervision, still commonly referred to as parole (approximately 800,000), or probation (approximately 4.2 million). Ninety-six percent of incarcerated persons will be released into the community at some point, creating challenges for their families, for social service systems, and for the communities wherein they reside. This bibliography begins with citations that provide an overview of the criminal justice system and is primarily focused on the incarceration of persons accused (and in jail) and/or convicted (and in prison) of one or more crimes. One must have an appreciation for the criminal justice system itself in order to understand the challenges faced by justice-involved persons and in order to study the approaches and interventions developed to maximize their success at reentry. After this system overview, the focus turns to social work involvement and with the incarcerated or community-supervised offender. The reentry process and the rehabilitative interventions commonly delivered post-release, in the community, are featured. Finally, the care and treatment of certain prisoner populations—including persons with mental illnesses, women, and those with substance disorders or dual diagnoses—are highlighted. Indeed, criminal justice is a complex area of study. Admittedly there are important segments of the criminal justice realm not dealt with here: for example, theories of crime, police powers, the pursuit of public safety, juvenile justice, criminal law and procedures, the adjudicatory process, and post-release supervision. Their omission is not a commentary on their importance but simply a reflection of the author’s decision to focus on social work involvement in criminal justice institutions with persons serving time in physical or legal confinement.

General Overviews

The focus here is on the broad systems issues and on certain specific person-relevant conditions that are of particular interest to social workers. References to seminal readings about prison and detention systems are provided as are references to articles that explore three specific conditions: the special needs and treatment of women, of persons with mental illnesses, and of those with substance abuse issues who are involved in the criminal justice system. Descriptions and commentary on the early American prison systems developed in Auburn and Philadelphia are widely available and the history of imprisonment philosophies and penal trials is important for a full understanding of the evolution of the criminal justice system. Sociologist Gresham Sykes (see Sykes 1958) wrote a vivid account of prison “society,” detailing the process by which prison guards and inmates are at once in and of the prison system. Murphy 1995 provides a good overview using the early writings of Plato, Kant, and Bentham and then details contemporary issues of reform and rehabilitation. Not to be ignored, Thompson and Mays 1991 presents a comprehensive overview of jail management in the United States and highlights the unique demands and needs of jails and those housed therein. Two excellent resources that provide an overarching view of the roles of treatment providers and treatment strategies within penal systems and with the offender population are included as well. Menninger 1966 is a still-relevant analysis of the penal system, suggesting fundamental changes to be made in the assessment and treatment of those labeled “criminal.” Wilson 2010 situates correctional treatment as treatment occurring within the social work context, and he effectively argues the importance of social workers taking the lead in shaping criminal justice interventions and system reforms. He highlights the treatment context by calling it “criminal justice social work” and identifies an array of criminal justice venues where social work practice is needed.

  • Menninger, Karl. 1966. The crime of punishment. New York: Viking.

    Menninger laments the vindictive nature of punishment, which he suggests worsens the crime rate and disadvantages the potential for individual change. In that criminal behavior is an illness, treatment is advocated, defined in part as including education, medication, and counseling.

  • Murphy, Jeffrie G. 1995. Punishment and rehabilitation. 3d ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    Provides the philosophical foundation for thinking about punishment and the purpose of the criminal justice system. In addition, contemporary issues related to the interface of poverty, race, victims’ rights and gender in the criminal justice system are also addressed.

  • Sykes, G. M. 1958. The society of captives. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    This seminal sociological book, based on a qualitative study of a New Jersey prison, presents a way of viewing the prison institution, including the delicate balance of inmate behavior and staff response. Also suggests the very nature of inmates, staff, prison management, and correctional goals results in a system that operates in ways unanticipated.

  • Thompson, Joel A., and G. L. Mays, eds. 1991. American jails: Public policy issues. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

    One of the earliest books to devote content to jail policy issues and to address these issues within the substantive areas of mental and physical health, suicide prevention, inmate rights, and jail conditions.

  • Wilson, M. 2010. Criminal justice social work in the United States: Adapting to new challenges. Washington, DC: NASW Center for Workforce Studies.

    This document, produced by the National Association of Social Workers, is a call to action of sorts for social workers to get involved in the US criminal justice system. The involvement of social workers in the Scottish system is detailed as an example for practice in the United States.

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