The Role of Social Work in Criminal Justice

The population rates in American state and federal prisons has continued to rise dramatically.  The Sentencing Project, a national criminal justice nonprofit organization reported that the prison population has risen from less than 200,000 in 1925 to more than 1.5 million in 2014.   In addition, a 2014 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that among released prisoners in 30 states in 2005, two-thirds were arrested for a new crime in three years or less, and three-quarters were arrested within five years.

The growing numbers of incarcerated Americans and the high percentage of recidivism makes the need for a significant increase in diversion programs, services for incarcerated prisoners, their families and their victims and a complex system of pre- and post-release programs.  Social workers in the criminal justice system are able to provide these services as well as advocate for change in the services currently in existence.  

Social Work in Criminal Justice

Social Workers play a vital role throughout the criminal justice system, including the following:

  • Evaluate and testify as expert witnesses in domestic violence, child abuse and elder abuse cases
  • Provide guidance to the courts in cases of child custody
  • Work with at risk youth and adults through probation and diversion programs to avoid  the need for incarceration
  • Provide clinical and case management services to victims and perpetrators through the court system
  • Provide clinical assessment and counseling services for prisoners and victims
  • Provide clinical services and case management to prisoners and their families through  pre- and post-release programs to ease the transition back to the community and prevent recidivism
  • Advocate for their clients
  • Effect change in the programs and services provided through the courts and legal systems

Criminal justice social work jobs, also called forensic social work, include work related to child custody, divorce, spouse abuse, juvenile and adult justice, corrections and mandated treatment, according to the National Organization of Forensic Social Work. A criminal justice social worker may provide consultation to attorneys, judges and law enforcement, make diagnoses and treatment recommendations, and serve as a mediator.

Some examples of criminal justice social work include:

  • Helping a victim of crime navigate the complexity of the legal system and obtain justice.
  • Helping prisoners released from prison achieve and maintain a reformed life that includes life skills development.
  • Serve as a case manager or conduct home visits required by law.
  • Provide support for the family of an incarcerated family member  
  • Social workers may aid in the public defender process, including drafting of reports and gathering health records.
  • Facilitate support groups for life after the sentence, including employment preparedness and addiction therapy.
  • Serve as an expert witness or as a client advocate in court.

Is Social Work in Criminal Justice Right for You?

In the complicated and challenging world of criminal justice, a forensic social worker has the ability to make significant and lasting change.

  • If you are interested in prevention and diversion of those who are at risk for imprisonment
  • If you are interested in the criminal justice system and wish to be an advocate, case manager and/or clinician for prisoners, their victims and their families
  • If you are interested in the treatment of family violence, child, spouse or elder abuse, divorce or custody decisions

Working as a professional Social worker in the criminal justice system might be the career for you.

Learn More About a Master of Social Work Degree

Whether you want to study for school while you're working or are craving a career change but aren't sure where to start, an online master of social work degree may be the right fit for you. Boston University is a globally top ranked institution with exemplary education for master of social work students.