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School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Putting a Focus on the Needs of People Behind Bars Matthew Epperson's work leads effort by social work profession in era of "decarceration"

In a classroom at SSA, Associate Professor Matthew Epperson leads students on a journey to understand an issue critical to the nation: the need to reduce the numbers of people incarcerated in prisons and jails, part of an emerging trend of "decarceration."

Associate Professor Matthew Epperson is a leading expert in studying a national trend towards reducing the time that criminals are imprisoned. The movement, called decarceration, tries to replace incarceration with other choices. It also examines approaches that respond to criminal behaviors that are more human and just. Epperson developed his interest in the incarcerated as a social worker in a jail in Michigan and has gone on to co-found a national research project on the issue. His published work looks at the role mental illness plays in arrests and imprisonment. He is Principal Investigator for the project "Advancing Intervention Science 
for Probationers with Serious Mental Illnesses." The study, involves developing and testing a new intervention to reduce the risk of criminal behavior and improve treatment adherence among people on probation who have serious mental illnesses.

By William Harms

The class is a popular one and draws students from the Law School and elsewhere in the University and regularly reaches its 25 student enrollment limit. The students learn how an era of mass incarceration, brought on by "get tough" policies on crime, particularly for drug offenses, has given way to a period when policy makers seek to reduce jail and prison populations.

The emerging era of decarceration is one of great opportunity for social work to reengage in progressive criminal justice reform. Epperson's work marks a return for SSA to studying social work in the criminal justice system, long an important emphasis for the School. It also marks reinvigorated attention within social work in ways that intersect with the criminal justice system nationally.

Epperson is one of the nation's leading experts on decarceration, which includes seeking more humane and just ways for responding to criminal or other socially undesirable behaviors to replace incarceration whenever possible. He is implementing research projects related to decarceration and has done extensive work on its mental health aspects.

He is the co-founder of a national project on decarceration that has been selected as one of social work's "Grand Challenges" for the coming decade by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW), an honorific society of distinguished scholars and practitioners dedicated to achieving excellence in the field of social work and social welfare through high-impact work that advances social good.

Matthew EppersonBeing a former social worker at a jail informs Epperson's teaching of his Winter Quarter class, "Criminal Justice and Social Work Interface: Entering an Era of Decarceration."

"My jail work experience comes up regularly, particularly when we talk about mental illnesses," Epperson says. "I also utilize this experience to talk about the importance of maintaining social work values and ethics while working in a very challenging environment. I frequently draw on the jail work experience, as well as my active research in criminal justice settings.

"I tell the students that the issues that we discuss in the classroom are tied to real social problems," says Epperson. "These real life problems are ones they will confront during their field work and throughout their careers."

The work in the classroom prepares them for that challenge. The course covers an overview of the criminal justice system; a look at social work's roles in criminal justice, past and present; special populations, including women and LGBTQ populations in the criminal justice system; the criminal justice system's disproportionate impact on people of color, people in poverty, and people with mental illnesses; the 1980s War on Drugs; restorative justice; and innovations in criminal justice reform and decarceration.

"As the US begins to enter an era of decarceration, attempting to reverse four decades of mass incarceration, the profession of social work has a unique opportunity to impact criminal justice policy and practice in remarkable ways," Epperson says in describing the purpose of the class. The course is intended to expand student understanding of the US criminal justice system, how it intersects with the social work profession and client systems, and "how social workers can promote social justice at this critical juncture, with particular emphasis on reducing the use of incarceration."

Students' final papers include developing an intervention at the intersection of social work and criminal justice. The interventions must, in some way, propose to lessen the use of incarceration. To help students further understand the importance of the issue, Epperson brings in guest speakers who work in the field to discuss various topics.

Many of the SSA students in the class select field placements in the criminal justice system, including probation, specialty courts such as mental health court and drug courts, the Cook County Jail, and the Illinois Department of Corrections. Others choose nonprofit agencies that do direct work in criminal justice settings and with criminal justiceaffected populations.

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Epperson got to know the needs and experiences of prisoners first hand when he accepted a job as a social worker in the county jail in Grand Rapids, MI. He applied for a mental health position not knowing the job would be at the jail.

"The person who interviewed me said that they didn't list the location of the position because they were afraid no one would apply. This is a clear example of how many in the field assume that criminal justice is an undesirable or irrelevant area for social work. I learned later that after I took a job, the officers put together an office pool to bet on how long I would last, since the person who held the job before left after a month," he says.

But Epperson lasted six years—longer than anyone expected. From 3 pm to 1 am, he interviewed and did assessments, sometimes as many as 30 a night, of people picked up for drug offenses, disorderly conduct, prostitution, and more serious crimes.

He started a jail diversion program where he worked to convince judges to refer people for mental health treatment and to connect people with other service providers in the community. "I loved the job, although it was extremely challenging," he says.

"I remember one 19 year old man who suffered a major breakdown," he says. The man was arrested after trying to disrupt activity at a local airport. Epperson realized that he probably suffered from an acute onset of mental illness and convinced a judge to direct him to treatment rather than imprisonment.

He got to know some of the arrestees well. Some, particularly those with drug-related charges, could be arrested more than one time during his evening shift.

"I worked with a young woman with a drug problem who kept coming back to jail for prostitution and, after getting to know her, I showed her mug shots from previous arrests and how much her appearance had changed over just a few years. I wanted to engage her in a way that might help her to think about treatment and changing the course of her life," he says.

Epperson received his bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminal justice from Central Michigan University and an MSW from Grand Valley State University, also in Michigan. After he left his job at the jail he worked as a mental health administrator in North Carolina, before deciding he wanted to pursue a research career that would have a broader impact on people.

With his wife and young children, Epperson moved to the New York City area where he pursued a PhD in social work at Columbia University, which he received in 2008. After a postdoctoral fellowship in behavioral health services and criminal justice research at Rutgers University, he joined the SSA faculty in 2010 and was promoted in June 2016 to an associate professor.

Teresa Hodge

In his work, Associate Professor Matthew Epperson partners with former prisoners who are now leaders in the decarceration movement. Teresa Hodge, (pictured left), who served a 70-month sentence and has founded a nonprofit that organizes meetings to bring service providers together with former prisoners, has collaborated with Epperson. "Only those of us who have been incarcerated really understand what goes on in a prison. Society judges people who have been incarcerated from that point in time when they made the worst decision of their lives. We don't take into account the ways people have grown and have changed during the time of their incarceration."

The word "decarceration" has its origins in the 1970s among scholars who described how psychiatric institutions were being emptied as part of a national movement to deinstitutionalize those with serious mental illnesses. The term was used sporadically by academics studying crime, and Epperson uses the word to describe the movement to limit the use of incarceration.

The War on Drugs, the 1980s response to illegal drug use, was one of the primary drivers for mass incarceration. Other harsh measures, such as aggressive policing and laws that mandated long sentences for repeat offenders, filled jails and prisons in the following decades. Between 1975 and 2000, the number of people in prison or jail went from about 100 per 100,000 of the nation’s population to more than 700 per 100,000.

Jails and prisons have long been important institutions of social control, and their social relevance has grown exponentially in the era of mass incarceration. Imprisonment was hoped to serve several functions, most of which have been shown to be ineffective, Epperson says. The justifications for incarceration have been to provide retribution for committing a crime, an opportunity to deter others from committing crime, a place to incapacitate dangerous individuals by removing them from society, and an opportunity for rehabilitation.

"Incarceration has been shown to be effective primarily for incapacitation only," says Epperson. For those individuals that have high likelihood of violence and victimizing others, the incapacitating effect of incarceration may be justified. But the vast majority of individuals currently locked up do not meet that threshold.  Reconsidering incarceration's function in this way helps to achieve one of the goals for what he calls "smart decarceration," maximizing public safety.

In addition to maximizing public safety and well-being, the other goals of smart decarceration are substantially reducing the incarcerated population in jails and prisons and redressing the existing social disparities among the incarcerated. Smart decarceration approaches intend to change the narrative on the function of incarceration, bring about criminal justice system-wide innovations, implement transdisciplinary policy and practice innovations, and employ evidence-driven strategies for optimal reform.

The AASWSW recognized the importance of the work when it selected Epperson’s project, "Promote Smart Decarceration," as one of the 12 grand challenges for social work in the next decade. More than 200 proposals were submitted for selection and those that made the cut included such areas as stopping family violence, ending homelessness, and reducing extreme economic inequality.

The grand challenge was officially launched at the 2016 conference of the Society for Social Work and Research in Washington, DC. Epperson presented the session "Promoting Smart Decarceration: Social Work’s Call to Social Innovation" in conjunction with the conference.

"We had a room that had space for 50 people and at least 75 showed up. People said this was the time for this kind of project," says Epperson, who works jointly on the issue with Carrie Pettus-Davis, Assistant Professor at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. The two are co-founders and faculty directors of the Smart Decarceration Initiative, a joint venture by SSA and the Center for Social Development at the Brown School.

"Matt and Carrie described an urgent, compelling societal problem, devastating to our most vulnerable populations and disastrous for all of society. They presented convincing evidence that the challenge was solvable and that meaningful strides toward solution could be achieved within a decade," says Edwina S. Uehara, PhD, '87, Ballmer Endowed Dean in Social Work and Professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work and Co-Chair of the AASWSW Grand Challenges Executive Committee.

"They proposed a sophisticated long term strategy—scientifically informed, innovative, and collaborative across sectors—to transform the criminal justice system and successfully made the case for social work’s role in leading this ambitious transformative effort."


Imprisonment disproportionately impacts African Americans, who make up 13 percent of the US population, but comprise 40 percent of the people jailed. Additionally, 14 percent of people in jail and prison have serious mental illnesses and 75 percent need substance abuse intervention, although only 11 percent receive any form of treatment.

The Statistics that demonstrate the need for an ambitious transformation of the criminal justice system are grim. The United States, which has five percent of the world's population, has a penal system that houses 25 percent of the world’s inmates at an annual cost of more than $50 billion.

Incarceration disproportionately affects African Americans, people living in poverty, and people with mental illnesses, and/or substance use disorders. Although African Americans make up 13 percent of the general population, they comprise 40 percent of all prisoners. Over half of all prisoners were in poverty before their arrest and are more likely to be poor and homeless after their release, Epperson says.

Additionally, 14 percent of prisoners have serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression, a rate that is more than twice the national average. Although 75 percent of prisoners need substance abuse intervention, only 11 percent receive any kind of treatment behind bars, national statistics show.

The vast majority of prisoners do not pose an imminent risk of violence and could be better served by community-based interventions that address problems that were part of the reasons they were arrested, Epperson contends. Many have never been convicted of a crime, but are behind bars because they can’t afford to make bail.

In his work, Epperson has advocated for including the leading voices of people who have themselves been incarcerated. Among the people he has collaborated with is Teresa Hodge, who with her daughter, Laurin Hodge, co-founded Mission: Launch in Maryland, a not-for-profit social enterprise committed to improving socio-economic outcomes and accelerating self-sufficiency for Americans with an arrest and/or conviction record. Hodge was previously incarcerated for a 70-month federal sentence and spoke at a session Epperson organized for the 2016 conference of the Society for Social Work and Research.

"I think he is spot on," Hodge says.

Mission: Launch organizes meetings that bring together service providers (such as job training program officers, public defenders, and social workers) to help people who have recently been released from prison and to encourage groups to collaborate. "Social workers are really important because they look at people in a holistic way and add a perspective to our conversation that is very helpful," Hodge says. The research shows that gaps in service delivery and communication among service providers perpetuates cycles of systemic poverty, social discrimination, and increased rates of recidivism.

"Only those of us who have been incarcerated really understand what goes on in a prison," says Hodge, who refers to the formerly incarcerated as "returning citizens." "Society judges people who have been incarcerated from that point in time when they made the worst decision of their lives. We don't take into account the ways people have grown and have changed during the time of their incarceration."

That trend toward decarceration is picking up some steam. The nation has begun reducing the numbers of people behind bars. Between 2008 and 2015, the number of people incarcerated dropped from 2,384,855 to 2,254,992—the first reduction in US incarceration in nearly 40 years.

Former US President Barack Obama showed his support for the effort by commuting more sentences than the previous six presidents combined. "The extraordinary rate of incarcerations of nonviolent offenders has created its own set of problems," he said at a press conference.

Among those problems is a toll on families and the life chances of inmates once they are released. Research shows that that 70 percent of the families affected had children under the age of 18, and that two out of three had problems meeting basic needs due to loss of income earned by the person incarcerated.

That research, presented at a Smart Decarceration Initiative conference Epperson helped organize, is contained in the 2015 report "Who Pays? The True Costs of Incarceration on Families." It also pointed out that three out of four former inmates found it difficult, if not impossible, to find work after their release. Most found it difficult to find housing, according to the study by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an organization focused on helping black, brown, and poor people break the cycles of incarceration and poverty. It sponsors Forward Together and Research Action Design, two social action organizations.

Epperson's published research examines the role mental illness plays in arrests and imprisonment. He also has projects underway to develop evidence and put a clearer focus on decarceration.

"We advocate for looking at the issue from a health perspective, thinking of incarceration as a highest level of care. When you go to the doctor’s office for a sore throat, she treats you in her office. You don’t get admitted to the hospital. We should think in similar ways about incarceration, using it only when justifiable and absolutely necessary," Epperson says.

Epperson is the Principal Investigator for the project "Advancing Intervention Science for Probationers with Serious Mental Illnesses." The study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, involves developing and testing a new behavioral intervention focused on criminal risk reduction and treatment adherence among probationers with serious mental illnesses. "Better addressing the needs of criminal justice-involved people with serious mental illnesses can help to reduce behavioral health disparities in the criminal justice system," he says. The study is being conducted in Cook County.

Another study, "Innovation Research on Deferred Prosecution," was launched in 2016 by Epperson and Pettus-Davis and will provide an in-depth examination of deferred prosecution programs. Deferred prosecution is an innovative but understudied intervention in which people charged with certain criminal offenses can be diverted from traditional court proceedings to receive social services, thus avoiding both incarceration and the burden of a criminal record. The study is funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

"The project has the potential to shape deferred prosecution programs across the country by generating much-needed evidence," Epperson says. "Widespread use of effective deferred prosecution programs can funnel individuals out of the criminal justice system—reducing the incarcerated population."

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Pettus-Davis said she enjoys working with Epperson becasue their research interests complement each other. "Matt's work looks at the front end of the criminal justice system, the court system, probation, and jails. I focus on the back end of the process, which involves looking at what happens to people after they have been incarcerated for a year or more and are then released.

"I think Matt’s major contribution is to have people rethink the predominant paradigm about criminal justice and how we intervene. Matt has challenged the field to engage differently with people who have mental illnesses that become involved in the criminal justice system—such as developing specialized probation interventions.

"He is an incredibly organized person and a critical thinker who has come up with some very thoughtful solutions. If we are able to succeed in advancing decarceration, we will have fewer people in prison and jail and the system will focus on enhancing people's likelihood of success rather than just on punishment, interrupting the pattern of arrest, repeat offense, and re-arrest."

By leading the social work grand challenge to promote smart decarceration, Epperson and Pettus-Davis are actively engaging with the social work profession to advance research, practice, and education in ways that will place social work at the forefront of the decarceration movement.

"The more active role that social work can play in this unique opportunity for criminal justice transformation, the more likely we are to have meaningful, socially just change," Epperson says.