In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Promoting Smart Decarceration as a Grand Challenge

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • University Affiliates
  • Goal 2 of Smart Decarceration: Redress Racial, Economic, Behavioral Health Disparities Among the Incarcerated Individuals

Social Work Promoting Smart Decarceration as a Grand Challenge
Carrie Pettus, Stephen Tripodi, Oluwayomi Paseda
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0320


America began the dramatic growth of its criminal justice system in the 1970s that led to the United States becoming the world’s largest jailer by the 21st century—a time period commonly referred to as mass incarceration. On any given day, approximately two million people are locked behind prisons and jail bars across the country, and over eleven million people cycle in and out of jails and prisons each year. As of the 2020s, there is widespread recognition that racial and social inequities fuel the constant churn of people in and out of the criminal justice and legal systems, leading to the burgeoning of advocacy groups and researchers calling to not only reform but transform the American way of conducting legal and correctional processing of crime. Promote Smart Decarceration was adopted by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (now powered by the Grand Challenges for Social Work) in 2015 as an organizing framework for data-driven and evaluative reforms. Smart decarceration is a framework with four guiding concepts: 1) Changing the narrative on incarceration and the incarcerated, 2) Generating criminal justice system-wide innovations, 3) implementing transdisciplinary policy and practice interventions, and 4) employing evidence-driven strategies. Smart decarceration adheres to the principle that in order for transformation to be achieved, both new evidence and existing evidence will guide decision-making and the diffusion of innovations. The achievement of smart decarceration will be evidenced when these three outcomes are simultaneously met: (1) the incarcerated population in US jails and prisons is substantially decreased, (2) racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system are redressed, and (3) community safety and public well-being are maximized. Efforts to transform the criminal justice system are wide-ranging and include strategies such as legislative policy reform, prevention programming, public-messaging campaigns, empirical documentation of problems and solutions, employer hiring initiatives, diversion and deflection efforts, specialty courts, correctional programs, and behavioral interventions. The evidence base is growing for a reimagined criminal justice system, and the state of data-driven approaches to criminal behavior, legal processes, and punishment will likely look very different in 2030 than approaches do in the first two decades of the 2000s. This entry provides a state-of-the-evidence review of scholarship responsive to and informing the tenetsof smart decarceration.

Introductory Works

A resurgence of scholarship on transforming the criminal justice system and reducing the overreliance on incarceration occurred during the first decade of the 21st century. This scholarship situated the expansive reach of the criminal justice system and the need for reform within the realities of structural racism and pervasive substantial health and social disparities. Redburn, et al. 2014 focuses on the effects of mass incarceration on individuals and society as a whole, while Epperson, et al. 2018 discusses evidence-based alternatives to incarceration when introducing the concept of smart decarceration. Pettus-Davis 2021 discusses several contributors to mass incarceration and guiding principles for criminal justice reform and decarceration. Grady 2021 examines a qualitative study with correctional practitioners regarding how to promote the smart decarceration initiative. Racial disparities driving injustices in contemporary criminal justice approaches became a national discussion after a highly visible police shooting of an unarmed Black man—Michael Brown—in Ferguson, Missouri (see United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division 2015).

  • Epperson, M. W., C. Pettus-Davis, A. Grier, and L. Sawh. 2018. Promote smart decarceration. In Grand challenges for social work and society. Edited by R. Fong, J. Lubben, and R. Barth, 181–203. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190858988.003.0010

    This chapter in the book on the Grand Challenges for Social Work focuses on the issue of mass incarceration and opportunities to promote smart decarceration. The authors present evidence-based alternatives to incarceration and approaches that support smart decarceration for a socially just society.

  • Grady, M. 2021. The perceptions and needs of practitioners working to promote Smart Decarceration. Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work 18.4:429–453.

    DOI: 10.1080/26408066.2021.1906815

    An exploratory study comprising interviews with practitioners in correctional facilities. The practitioners discussed the need for effective behavioral health programming and trauma-related care. Additionally, the practitioners mentioned the need for strong coordination with service providers in the community in preparation for release from the correctional facility.

  • Pettus-Davis, C. 2021. Smart decarceration. In Encyclopedia of social work. 21st ed. Edited by T. Mizrahi and L. E. Davis, 1–19. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This comprehensive review article presents factors that contribute to mass incarceration, the historical foundation from which smart decarceration stems, and its guiding principles. The article ends with principles and goals for criminal justice reform and other decarceration initiatives.

  • Redburn, S., B. Western, and J. Travis, eds. 2014. The growth of incarceration in the United States: Exploring causes and consequences. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    This report includes a review of factors that guided the use of incarceration and the effects of high incarceration rates on public safety, individuals involved in the criminal justice system, and US society. Findings from the review result in recommendations for a reenvisioning in the commission of justice and future research and implications for policy.

  • United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. 2015. Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. Department of Justice (4 March).

    This report presents the findings from a civil rights investigation by the Justice Department on the police department in Ferguson, MO. The results highlighted extensive racial bias in traffic stops and local ordinances that the local court system condoned.

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