As a social worker interested in researching and transforming the criminal-legal system, Sophia Sarantakos found a strong intellectual home as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA).
Having met with Associate Professor Matthew Epperson prior to applying, she was certain that the training and experiences she would receive at SSA would give her the trajectory she was looking for in an academic program.
“I learned about professor Epperson’s work while exploring social work doctoral programs. I was drawn to SSA over other doctoral programs because of its commitment to interdisciplinary training—evident through its diverse faculty—and its growing contingency of criminal-legal scholars, the latter of which is particularly uncommon for social work schools,” says Sarantakos, who came to SSA in 2015.
Her experience with social work began after her graduation from Marist College in 2004, where she studied business administration. “I started out as a criminal justice major, but felt uneasy about my job prospects, particularly since I wasn’t sure about graduate school at the time. Business administration felt like a practical move.”
After graduation, she worked overseas in the social work field and realized that was the direction she wanted to pursue. Upon returning home, she worked at a local social service agency mentoring youth while applying to social work masters programs.
After graduating from Tulane University’s School of Social Work in 2006 with an MSW, Sarantakos remained in New Orleans and worked as a social work practitioner in an AIDS service organization for several years before transitioning to the criminal-legal field. She developed and directed the first jail diversion program in the state of Louisiana housed in the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) office. “The program was initiated by the state’s chief public defender, who wanted the Louisiana public defense system to take on a more holistic approach.”
It was during her tenure at OPD that her dedication to criminal-legal work and interest in research were affirmed. She ultimately left New Orleans to pursue a stronger job market in Austin, Texas, where she began teaching BSW courses as adjunct clinical faculty at The University of Texas at Austin. Sarantakos says it became clear to her that she loved teaching and inspiring new social work students, and she was eager to learn if the world of academic research was indeed a good fit for her.
After teaching several BSW courses, she began working as a program manager at UT Austin’s Health Behavior Research & Training Institute, where she organized and coordinated all of the lab’s research projects and related day-to-day activities, and played an integral role as one of the lab’s clinical interventionists. These experiences teaching and engaging in meaningful research solidified her desire to pursue doctoral training.
At SSA, her research focused on the decision-making processes of criminal-legal actors, and exploring the ways discretion can be used as a tool to transform penal processes and practices. She took part in multiple research projects overseen by Associate Professor Epperson and Assistant Professor Gina Fedock.
“Working with and learning from professors Epperson and Fedock has been hugely impactful for me. Their work is critical and has implications beyond academia. They’re both actively engaged in research with criminal-legal institutions and actors, working to move the needle on system transformation,” she says.
“I've had the privilege of assisting them on projects from conception to completion, and these hands-on experiences are invaluable. Course content is important, but the field is where the most crucial learning takes place,” she adds.
Her work with Epperson included an evaluation of the Cook County Justice and Mental Health Collaborative (JMHC). The program is intended to foster systematic communication among criminal-legal and healthcare agencies in Cook County to identify and divert people with mental illnesses at the earliest possible point of contact with the criminal-legal system. She began her work on the project in 2017 and will continue with process and outcome evaluations of the joint effort. As co-evaluator with Epperson, Sarantakos observed JMHC meetings, took detailed notes of the collaborative’s activities, and developed and conducted surveys for its members. She guided the development of the group’s logic models and co-produced the evaluation reports.
“It has been a real pleasure to work with Sophia as she moved through the doctoral program,” Epperson says. “She came to SSA with a great deal of real-world practice experience and understanding, and she is adding to that foundation by receiving intensive conceptual, theoretical, and methodological training. She is a serious student who loves to learn, both in the classroom and in the field. I have every confidence that Sophia will be an engaged scholar who conducts her research and teaching with a social justice orientation in ways that have tangible impact.”
Sarantakos’s research work with Assistant Professor Fedock included initiating, refining, and executing manuscripts from conceptualization to dissemination, and assisting with the surveying of women incarcerated at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois. Fedock and her team intend to use this information to improve the safety and well-being of the women incarcerated at Logan, and to advocate for gender-responsive policy changes that specifically address women involved in the criminal-legal system.
Sarantakos's dissertation was titled, “Progressive Prosecution? An Analysis of Decision-Making Processes in Deferred Prosecution Programs.”
“My time here at SSA is giving me the tools and experiences I need to become a thoughtful researcher,” Sarantakos says. “The faculty and colleagues I’ve connected with at SSA have shown me how to conduct meaningful research with integrity and engage in work that actively transforms the criminal-legal system. I will be leaving with the skills, knowledge, and relationships to build a career fighting for system transformation, like my mentors here at SSA.”
Sophia Sarantakos is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Denver's Graduate School of Social Work.