Urban (In)Justice: Transforming Criminal Justice in Cities

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)

VOLUME 24 | ISSUE 3 | FALL 2017

A group of SSA faculty examines the effects of crime control on contemporary city life. In the United States, arrest and incarceration rates have reached historically high levels, while police-community relations have deteriorated. Policies and practices shaping urban life often run counter to their stated intentions of promoting safety, justice, and protection. This criminal justice work displays how strategies to reduce crime not only impact individuals interacting with the criminal justice system, but also shape how their families and community members experience city life.

Girl playing with her father

Certain urban spaces are structured by the concentration of and entanglement with policing and criminal justice institutions, with devastating outcomes for the populations residing within them. Through interactions with educational, employment, and other institutions, police and criminal justice processes reproduce and expand forms of social exclusion and inequalities. These processes create a negative feedback loop that reinforces segregation, facilitates abuses of power, and impedes the reconstruction of community life and possibilities for reform.

Scholars at SSA are crafting and testing innovative strategies to address mass incarceration, human rights abuses within prisons, and the loss of citizenship associated with incarceration. These efforts span prevention and intervention areas of focus. Our work advances theory, practice, policy, and research in understanding and addressing the concentration of injustice within particular urban spaces, and in shaping new directions towards urban based justice.

Man looking on the outside of his house


It is by now well known that the United States is the world's leading jailer, yet a curious, equally consequential development remains hidden in plain sight: the rise of a supervised society. The nation has 48,000 laws, regulations and administrative sanctions to regulate the lives of the 19.6 million Americans estimated to have a felony conviction. This population is ten times the size of the U.S. prison census. Two thirds are poor and one third are Black, representing one in three Black American men. Seventy-nine million Americans have criminal records. Given the consequences of a criminal record on civic, political, and family life, “mass supervision” has ushered in an alternate legal reality, changing the nature of social life for the urban and suburban poor while ushering in a new form of political membership: what Assistant Professor Reuben Jonathan Miller calls “carceral citizenship.”

Hands outside

Miller is an ethnographer studying city life at the nexus of criminal justice and social welfare policy in iconic American cities, like Chicago, Detroit, and New York. He focuses on the experience of prisoner reentry to capture how the legal and symbolic status of “criminal” shapes the social lives of formerly incarcerated people and their family members. To capture the full experience, he follows former prisoners for years at a time, starting on the day of their release, documenting their attempts to find work and housing, and to reconnect with their families. He has participated in services at halfway houses; interviewed employers, landlords, and social service providers; and worked on political campaigns with formerly incarcerated activists as they attempt to change the laws, policies, and cultures of punishment that constrain them.

In his forthcoming book, Miller attempts to capture what it is like to live in a supervised society. His work reveals how the effects of a criminal record extend to the family, friends, and community members of prisoners and former prisoners. When their loved ones are still in prison, family and friends strain financially to cover the costs of regular collect calls and commissary funds, and travel for hours to visit. When prisoners are released, and members of their support system offer them housing, they may find themselves facing eviction. Miller documents how formerly incarcerated people make lives for themselves in the face of legal exclusion, staying in contact with children they have watched grow up through pictures and prison visits, and caring for new loved ones whom they meet when they return. This new social arrangement blurs the lines between guilt and innocence, as well as what it means to be in or out of a jail or prison cell. 

Mother with her baby


The era of mass incarceration, which makes the U.S. the world’s leading country in incarcerating people, is increasingly understood as a serious social and economic blunder. As mass incarceration hovers at a tipping point, a unique opportunity exists to chart a different course. 

How do we reset and remake our entire criminal justice system? In this Conversation, Assistant Professor Gina Fedock and Associate Professor Matthew W. Epperson discuss the problem of mass incarceration in the United States, and specifically the disproportionate impact of policing and incarceration on particular urban areas. They examine the data as to where people are coming from, and going to, within the incarceration pipeline as well as the reasons why so many are incarcerated, including connections to trauma and mental health issues. They also discuss how SSA is leading the field of social work to address the problem by providing scholarship and ideas for “Smart Decarceration.” This new term is defined as how society can reduce the incarcerated population in ways that are humane, socially just, and sustainable; and how this population can be better supported and future incarceration prevented by interventions that can improve affected populations’ mental health and quality of life, while maximizing public safety and well-being.

Fedock: Our research relates to mass incarceration, and as this magazine issue explores urban connections, I immediately think about the geography of incarceration.

Epperson: Yes, I think of “million dollar blocks”—city residential blocks where $1,000,000 or more is spent to incarcerate residents. In Chicago between 2005 and 2009, there were 851 such blocks, mostly in south and west side neighborhoods, displaying how mass incarceration unequally burdens certain parts of the city: namely, predominately poor and minority communities.

Fedock: And as social workers, we have a professional, ethical responsibility to these communities.

Epperson: Also, you and I are social workers who have practiced and conducted research in the criminal justice system. In your work with women, how is the geography of incarceration important?

Fedock: Over the past 30 years, the number of women incarcerated increased by 700% and disproportionately included women of color due to changing policies and practices. Most states have few women’s prisons, located mainly in rural areas. For example, 40 percent of women prisoners in Illinois are from Chicago, yet our women’s prisons are three hours away. This displacement exacerbates women’s concerns, including frayed family connections and invisibility regarding their experiences. My research highlights human rights concerns stemming from this isolation.

Broadly, I examine how criminal justice involvement impacts women’s health. For example, in one of my studies, women with arrest histories were more likely to have mental health concerns, including recently attempting suicide, than women without arrest histories.

Epperson: Why do you think that is? 

Fedock: This “why” question propelled my research on women’s pre-prison experiences. Women in prison had histories of trauma throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. They lacked treatment: no mental health services even after suicide attempts and no substance abuse treatment despite severe use. Also, 85 percent of the women with life sentences were serving their first prison sentence. These inequities continued during incarceration. My work aims to contribute to preventing women from being incarcerated, improving services, and changing criminal justice policies and practices. A key question is: “how can we center health and safety for women?” And what happens when we do? 

Epperson: You found that criminal justice involvement often stems from inequities that some women face, which challenges the narrative used to justify punitive approaches: that people are dangerous, making bad choices, and need to be locked up. Many women experience a lack of safety before and during incarceration. 

Fedock: Exactly. Focusing on a sub-population within the criminal justice system brings about a nuanced perspective, challenging narratives and practices. How has such a focus guided your work? 

Epperson: My introduction to this work was as a social worker in a jail in a mid-sized city in Michigan. I saw people were incarcerated because their other needs weren’t being met, especially folks with mental illness and substance abuse problems. In Chicago, we have what is arguably the largest mental health institution in the entire country—the Cook County Jail. But of course incarceration settings are primarily designed to punish people, not provide much needed treatment. 

One of my current studies involves building a practice-based intervention that probation officers can deliver that’s more responsive to people with serious mental illnesses (SMI). Developing this kind of intervention means in-depth conversations with people most affected. We regularly bring together people with SMI and criminal justice involvement, probation staff, treatment providers, and advocates and talk through treatment strategies—strategies that we’ll be testing in the near future. We are finding that the development of a therapeutic relationship between probation officer and client is a crucial component, and one in which social work is well-versed.

Fedock: Infusing this social work approach into criminal justice processes represents one of the highlights of SSA scholarship. By understanding the problems these populations face, we can craft solutions utilizing pre- and postincarceration interventions. Matt, you’ve been key in propelling innovative solutions representing a new scholarship and thinking called Smart Decarceration. 

Epperson: This is an exciting time for social work to lead an era of decarceration: actively undoing mass incarceration, and replacing it with more responsive approaches whenever possible. This country is not able to continue the mass incarceration boom, and the time is ripe for change. 

Through the Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative, I’m co-leading one of 12 challenges, entitled “Promote Smart Decarceration.” Our aim is to leverage the best of social work to deploy an array of multilevel interventions that are more effective and socially just than incarceration. We created four working groups. The practice group is developing clinical interventions and the policy group is examining new policies to advance decarceration. The education group explores how social work curricula and field placements prepare decarceration-minded social workers. And, Gina, you co-lead the research working group. 

Fedock: Yes, this group includes over 70 social work researchers who are expanding the evidence base around decarceration while centering marginalized populations in that research. We look across factors—federal and state policies, correction environments, neighborhoods and cities, and families and individuals—and seek effective levers of change. This approach allows for different types of evidence and modes of change than what is found in traditional criminology and criminal justice research. It’s invigorating to consider the possibilities.

Epperson: I think it’s this applied research that’s going to have an impact on changing how we think about and use incarceration. It’s work that is testing out ideas on the ground in real time with real people and systems, to derive better solutions. And SSA is well-positioned to do this.

Fedock: I agree. Among social work schools, SSA has one of the strongest concentrations of faculty and students that examine and address critical criminal justice concerns. 

Epperson: Yes, and from this foundation, we are connecting with important work across the University, creating multidisciplinary collaborations to have an impact on Chicago and beyond. I’m excited about these opportunities to advance innovations in cities, which are the pivotal settings for criminal justice transformation.

Next: SSA's Global Urban Impact