New Research Shows Bail Reform is the Key Fix for Jail Overcrowding

Could bail reform be the answer to changing the trajectory of America’s current problem with mass incarceration?

That question is central to a new book published this month by University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law Professor Shima Baradaran Baughman and Cambridge University Press titled “The Bail Book: A Comprehensive Look at Bail in America’s Criminal Justice System.”

The book is the first comprehensive analysis on bail in the U.S. since 1970 and comes at a time when efforts to implement widespread bail reform across the country are gaining momentum. Senators Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif. — have introduced a bill to overhaul the nation’s bail system in an attempt to prevent individuals from being taken advantage by bail bondsman who often charge high fees and prey on disadvantaged people after an arrest.

University of Utah Law Professor Shima Baradaran Baughman

The bill, titled the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, is designed to address what the senators see as flaws in the system. Baughman’s book gives states concrete ideas on how to reform bail and save money, which would be even more feasible using reforms provided under the proposed bill. Other states have recently implemented their own bail reforms, including Colorado, New Jersey and Kentucky.

The time is ripe for sweeping changes, according to Baughman.

“Mass incarceration is one of the greatest social problems facing the United States today. America incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other country and is one of only two countries that requires arrested individuals to pay bail to be released from jail while awaiting trial,” Baughman states.

In the book, Baughman traces the history of bail and demonstrates how it has become an oppressive tool of the courts that disadvantages minority and poor defendants.

She draws on constitutional rights and new empirical research to show how we can reform bail in America to alleviate mass incarceration. By implementing these reforms, she argues, the nation can restore constitutional rights and release more defendants while lowering crime rates.

Baughman is a former Fulbright scholar and national expert on bail and pretrial prediction and her current scholarship examines criminal justice policy, prosecutors, drugs, search and seizure, international terrorism, and race and violent crime. Her teaching and scholarship at the University of Utah focus on criminal law and procedure and her work is widely featured in media outlets like the New York TimesWall Street JournalEconomist, and NPR.

She began researching bail issues early in her career after realizing that the most consequential decision in criminal justice besides arrest is the decision whether to detain or release someone before trial.

“It ends up impacting everything in a criminal case — from whether a person goes to jail and for how long, whether they are able to keep a job, home, and kids, and whether they will recidivate or be rearrested again. All of these impacts result from a two-minute decision of whether a judge allows someone to be released or not,” she said.

“And usually it is decided based on whether the person can afford to pay the bail. That’s, unfortunately, the biggest factor. Almost 90 percent of people who are arrested cannot get out of jail before trial just because they don’t have $200 or $500 to pay to a bail bondsman.”

Baughman’s research presents a customizable plan for instituting bail reforms, including use of pre-trial risk assessments and helping judges to use predictive methods to release the right people on bail without increasing crime rates.

Her research may provide a helpful framework as conversations about the future of bail in America continue.

“There’s a lot of momentum on bail,” said Baughman. “Conversations are happening in every state to decrease the number of people incarcerated. Most of the people in jail are not people convicted of any crime and we can change that.”

Study Suggest Ban the Box Helps Those With Criminal Records Gain Employment

Many employers outright avoid hiring job applicants with criminal records as a matter of general business policy. Thus, questions on employment applications regarding the applicant’s arrest history have, for the large part, become a screening mechanism through which those with job applicants with criminal records are denied further consideration in the hiring process, regardless of the applicant’s job skills or qualifications.

This practice, in turn, preserves the cycle of unemployment among the convicted. In 2004, a civil rights organization known as All of Us or None led a campaign for fair-chance hiring or “ban-the-box” (BTB) policies. Under BTB policies, inquiries relating to criminal convictions on employment applications are deferred until a later stage in the hiring and/or interview process as are background checks.

Thus, pursuant to a BTB policy, questions such as “have you ever been convicted of a crime?” could not be asked in an initial employment application and, instead, would be reserved to a later stage in the hiring process, such as after the initial interview, for example.

The theory behind these laws is that those applicants who do have a criminal conviction on their record will be given the opportunity to demonstrate their qualifications and skills before the potential employer learns of their criminal history, thereby improving their chances of employment. Several states and local jurisdictions throughout the United States have since implemented various BTB policies in an effort to mitigate the hiring barriers faced by those with criminal records.

In addition, in November of 2015 the Obama Administration enacted a BTB policy in order to mitigate conviction-based discrimination in federal positions. Although some local jurisdictions have reported significant improvements in the percentage of individuals with criminal convictions hired as a result of BTB policies, national data has not yet been studied. A recent study led by Terry-Ann Craigie, a Connecticut College economist, therefore, aimed to identify the national impact of public sector BTB policies on the employment of convicted individuals.

Professor Craigie also examined one of the main critiques of BTB policies: the possibility of statistical discrimination as a result of employers, in the absence of being able to rely on conviction information, using characteristics such as race, age, and gender, to predict the conviction status of applicants. By using such factors to determine the probability of conviction, it is assumed that young, minority males are the most likely to be adversely affected.

The study was based on data received from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 Cohort, which followed almost 9,000 individuals from 1997 to 2013 and provided detailed information about their conviction and employment information. The study measured the impact of BTB policies by comparing the employment odds of those without convictions to the odds of those with criminal convictions.

Overall, the study concluded that public sector BTB policies increased the opportunity for public sector employment of those with criminal convictions by close to 40%. With respect to the concerns with stereotyping, the study found no evidence of statistical discrimination against young minority males. This, however, was in contrast to two prior studies that did find evidence that BTB policies encouraged reliance on racial stereotyping in the context of private employment.

In short, the study’s findings seem to support the implementation of BTB policies in an effort to improve public sector employment of the correctional population. Due to the conflicting results on the issue of stereotyping, Professor Craigie suggests the need for a more comprehensive study to addresses this issue.

Crime, Punishment and Biased Sentencing

University of Utah honors and law professor (lecturer) Randy Dryer, right, and University of Utah School of Computing associate professor Suresh Venkatasubramanian, center, teach an honors class on how software algorithms used in judicial courts to evaluate defendants could be biased like humans – Photo Credit: University of Utah

When it comes to crime and punishment, how judges dish out prison sentences is anything but a game. Students from the University of Utah have created a new mobile game for the iPhone and Android devices that demonstrates how software algorithms used by many of the nation’s judicial courts to evaluate defendants could be biased like humans.

Justice.exe is now available for free on Apple’s App Store and Google Play.

The students, part of a university honors class this semester called When Machines Decide: The Promise and Peril of Living in a Data-Driven Society, were tasked with creating a mobile app that teaches the public how a machine-learning algorithm could develop certain prejudices.


“It was created to show that when you start using algorithms for this purpose there are unintended and surprising consequences,” says Suresh Venkatasubramanian, associate professor in the U’s School of Computing who helped the students develop the app and taught the class with U honors and law professor (lecturer) Randy Dryer. “The algorithm can perceive patterns in human decision-making that are either deeply buried within ourselves or are just false.”

When determining bail or sentencing, many judicial courts use software programs with sophisticated algorithms to help assess a defendant’s risk of flight or of committing another crime. It is similar to how many companies use software algorithms to help narrow the search field of job applicants. But Venkatasubramanian’s research into machine learning argues these kinds of algorithms could be flawed.

Using the Justice.exe game is simple: It shows players the mugshot of a criminal defendant, his or her offense and both the minimum and maximum sentence. Additional information about the defendant is provided including education level, the number of prior offenses, marital status and race.

The player’s job is to decide if the defendant should get the minimum or maximum sentence. Fifty defendants are provided for the player to go through. During the course of the game, the app will begin eliminating certain pieces of information — such as the person’s race — so the player must decide on a sentence with less facts to go on. Meanwhile, the app is adjusting its own algorithm model in order to try and predict how the player might sentence future defendants.

“What you’re doing is creating the data that the algorithm is using to build the predictor,” Venkatasubramanian says about how the game works. “The player is generating the data by their decisions that is then put into a learner that generates a model. This is how every single machine-learning algorithm works.”

At the end of the game, the app tries to determine how the player sentences defendants based on race, type of offense and criminal history. The point of the game is to show players that how they intended to mete out punishment may not be how the algorithm perceived it.

“Algorithms are everywhere, silently operating in the background and making decisions that humans used to make,” Dryer says. “The machine does not necessarily make better or more fair decisions, and the game was designed to illustrate that fact,”

The honors class, comprised of nine students from departments such as bioengineering, School of Computing, nursing and business, also gave a presentation to the Utah Sentencing Commission earlier this month to demonstrate how algorithms can be biased and gave recommendations on how to approach the problem.

“There are things you should be asking and things you should be doing as policy makers. For the public, you need to know what kinds of questions you should be asking of yourself and of your elected representatives if they choose to use this,” Venkatasubramanian says. “The problem is there aren’t good answers to these questions, but this is about being aware of these issues.”

Innocent African-Americans More Likely to Be Wrongfully Convicted

African-American prisoners who were convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers and spend longer in prison before exoneration, according to a report released today.

“The vast majority of wrongful convictions are never discovered,” said MSU Law’s Barbara O’Brien, the author of a companion report, “Exonerations in 2016,” and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. “There’s no doubt anymore that innocent people get convicted regularly—that’s beyond dispute. Increasingly, police, prosecutors and judges recognize this problem. But will we do enough to actually address it? That remains to be seen.”

“Exonerations in 2016” found a record number of exonerations for the third straight year and a record number of cases with official misconduct.

The National Registry of Exonerations is a joint project of the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. The registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989 – cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence.

The 2016 data show convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were more likely to involve misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants. On average, black murder exonerees waited three years longer in prison before release than whites.

Judging from exonerations, a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white person convicted of sexual assault. On average, innocent African-Americans convicted of sexual assault spent almost four-and-a-half years longer in prison before exoneration than innocent whites.

In addition, the report, officially titled, “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States,” found innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people.

Since 1989, more than 1,800 defendants have been cleared in “group exonerations” that followed 15 large-scale police scandals in which officers systematically framed innocent defendants. The overwhelming majority were African-American defendants framed for drug crimes that never occurred.

“Of the many costs the war on drugs inflicts on the black community, the practice of deliberately charging innocent defendants with fabricated crimes may be the most shameful,” said University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, the author of “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States” and senior editor of the National Registry of Exonerations.

Last year, there were more exonerations than in any previous year in which government officials committed misconduct; the convictions were based on guilty pleas; no crime actually occurred; and a prosecutorial conviction integrity unit worked on the exoneration.

Is the Criminal Justice System A Crime In Itself


Patches are used to keep something that is worn out still working. For example, you can take a piece of material and sew it on your jeans to cover a hole, extending their life. This patch often adds color and revitalizes the old fabric, albeit without continuity. There comes a point when a patch is no longer viable, however, and the tattered remnants of clothing that brought us so much joy must be resigned to patches in a quilt.

As our society has evolved, in particular the way we deal with crime, we have continuously applied patches. Patching society has been the natural and incremental approach, but stemmed from archaic class systems unrelated to the founding of  the United States. Yet we have accepted these remnant methods and rarely think about how they reflect our social values.

But, there comes a time when we must discard the old and tattered and invest in the new. Regardless of the resistance of those dedicated to old world views, when the time is ripe patching is no longer viable and we must accept that a shift is happening or be run over by it.

We have now reached a point where the patched social makeup is one of mass imprisonment, (2.3 million in the US alone), and most of those are unconvicted, meaning they are awaiting trial but don’t have the money for bail and when convicted, it is for non-violent crimes. We’ve become so unsympathetic as a society that we basically view this as ‘their’ problem.

It’s time to start over. An important question we now face is what is a crime and why are they committed? When we really examine this, there are many theories, but most won’t look past our  current, patched together social fabric. But the statistic show that most crime is centered around money. Money has evolved from a time of barter to complex banking systems with printed currency and now EMV card technology. But no matter the format for currency, when people don’t have enough for their basic needs, they steal, engage in illegal commerce or retaliate against those trying to obtain money.

There are many theories as to the root causes of crime from Freud to Karl Marx and those theories vary greatly from the responsibility of the individual to the role of society and economics. What has become clear by crime statistics is that money is the center of most crime even if you are reluctant to apply the biblical teachings of Timothy, where he states that the love of money is the root of all evil.

What’s different today respective to Marx and the Bible is that we have the means to provide, at least at the base level, enough for every person on the planet. We have enough food, energy and an ever-increasing ability to provide to all localities, yet people do without. They do without clean water and basic food because of denial of access which invites and incites crime. It’s not because people are pre-determined criminals or they are envious of other’s accumulation. It is because their basic needs are not met in a world with overflowing abundance.

But instead of providing, we create crime by building modern versions of moats and castles. We spend billions on prison and courts and lawyers. It seems obvious to me that if we redirected our resources to provide instead of punish, we would all but eliminate most crime and therefore most criminal activity. Thomas Jefferson famously stated that, “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”  And now our criminal justice system is not only riddled with unjust laws which have essentially become a war on ordinary people.

This is a big topic and one without easy answers, but the question I would like to pose is, if we were to subject the makeup of our society to the legal system, would we find that our system is criminal? I’m not starting an advocacy for a nanny state or any other cliched response. I’m merely asking the question, is our culture, when looked at objectively, criminal? If the answer is yes, then it follows logically that we should examine how to reconfigure our society. After all, that’s how America was originally created.

Rape Culture — How Do We Address and End it?


Trigger warning: this post contains challenging references to rape and sexual violence.

I was moved by Madeleine Holden’s piece in The Spinoff today, about Brock Turner, the 19- (now 20-) year-old Stanford student athlete sentenced to six months imprisonment after raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. It’s a passionate bit of writing, angry actually and, rightfully so, Holden asks the question, “What culture raised Turner to become a rapist?”

She concludes:

“… rapists are absorbing our cultural attitudes about rape, and then they are raping … women. It’s not an academic exercise, and we have enough evidence to show that our dialogue around rape isn’t harmless or separate from the real world in which rape takes place. Perpetuating rape myths contributes towards a culture in which rape happens often and is punished little; a culture that believes, on some level, that men are bound to rape and women invite rape by acting in certain ways.

“That is the real problem.”

I agree, partially. Here’s what I think the real, real problem is: We’re doing little, if anything, to address Holden’s real problem. Which, of course, is because we don’t think the real problem is a problem.

That’s far too many problems in one paragraph.

I’ve been watching the Turner story develop over the last week or so. I’ve felt angry, aghast, helpless, sad. I admit, I’m not altogether sure about how I feel or what I think about Turner not being sentenced to the maximum 14 years sentence. I’m conflicted. In the context of our current judicial system it doesn’t give justice to Turner’s 23-year-old victim. However, I don’t think sending a 19-year-old to prison for the same length of time as his life would do anything to solve the problem of rape culture.

I agree the system favours the likes of Turner (“young, white male athletes from prestigious universities … treated leniently by their schools and the legal system”). But the same system is also biased against people of non-white, poor and underprivileged backgrounds.

I also agree it treats rape victims abysmally. So we begin to add another element to rape culture: the judicial system.

What has shocked me the most has been the comments made by the two prominent adult white men involved: Judge Aaron Persky and Turner’s father. Persky: “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him… I think he will not be a danger to others.” Turner senior: “His life will never be the one that he dreamt about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”

Here we see the effect of both system and culture manifesting themselves in beliefs that Turner’s upbringing will result in only one incidence of offending and that the incident’s consequence on Turner is more impacting than that of his victim.

Part of the real, real problem is not holding these adults to account because it is they who personify and perpetuate the culture of rape and the system that lets it continue. Admittedly, Persky has been called on his attitude (well, actually probably more his light sentence) by demands for him to be removed from his role, but Turner’s father seems to have escaped any ire apart from Holden’s (I won’t repeat her words, they stand for themselves). It seems the right to free speech translates into a father’s right to raise a rapist.

If we took a real stance against rape culture, Turner’s father’s attitude would be deemed a crime in itself. Is it any wonder a 19-year-old young man would see raping an unconscious woman as a legitimate way to get a bit of action with such fatherly advice?

Rape culture is a problem of society. It’s a problem of generations, history and patriarchy. Rape culture needs to be targeted by many more institutions than the judiciary. Boys, I believe, from as young as ten or 11, need age-appropriate education about consent, sexual violence and intimate respect throughout their schooling. Male teachers need similar professional development.

Rape rehabilitation programmes need to target all offenders, as well as parents, teachers and other significant adults in the lives of juvenile offenders. Judges need professional development until such time as, hopefully, rape is seen as a socially-caused aberrant behaviour deserving treatment rather than punishment.

Victims of rape need skilled and sustainable support and access to restorative processes that address the impact of the behaviour. Restorative processes need to acknowledge the role of individual, parental, educational and social failure to prevent the behaviour.

If you think I’m being soft, that those men just need to pay for it, so be it. I write this out of compassion and genuine concern for humanity, as we are all affected adversely by rape culture. If we continue to believe it’s enough to just blame the offender, we must consider how this is any more fair and effective than blaming victims and saying they ask for it.

This could be the beginning of a real solution.

Congress Falters and Criminal Justice Reform Stalls


Despite members of the Democratic and Republican parties both expressing the need for reforming the criminal justice system, efforts remain stalled in Congress due to the Republican majorities in the House and Senate inability to pass several key legislative bills. Infighting between conservatives and the Republican leadership has stalled the House and Senate from completing passage of legislation to fund transportation and infrastructure.

The Senate agreed on a six-plan for highway funding that included a five-year renewal of the controversial Export-Import (Ex-Im) bank. Conservative Republicans in the House refused to support the Senate’s long-term transportation bill, but agreed to vote on a three-month extension of current legislation which the Senate is expected to approve. This allows the House to leave for its six-week summer recess.

Failure to agree on a long-term plan to fund the nation’s transportation and infrastructure needs exemplifies why Americans are frustrated with Congress. A May Gallup poll reported a 19 percent favorability rating for Congress. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issues a quadrennial report on the nation’s transportation infrastructure. Its 2013 report graded the nation’s infrastructure at D+, estimating 3.6 trillion dollars would be needed by 2020 to bring infrastructure up to good condition.

Yet Congress has not raised the primary funding mechanism—the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel—since 1993 when it was raised to 18.4 per gallon. Adjusted for inflation, it is now worth about 11.5 cents. Had it been indexed to inflation it would be about 30 cents. Increase fuel efficiency also erodes the monetary value of the tax. As a result Congress had to make transfers from the General Fund to the Highway Trust Fund in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2014. In the meantime, highways, roads and bridges continue to deteriorate.

According the ASCE, nearly a third of the nation’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition costing Americans millions of dollars in additional car repairs. Why not pay the gas tax?

Passing a stopgap measure ensures more time will be spent later in the year wrangling over these same issues. Several critical issues will be waiting for members of Congress when they return from their recess the day after Labor Day. The clock will be winding down on the 60-day review period for the Iran nuclear agreement.

Then there’s funding the federal government. Congress will have just 12 working days to pass a continuing resolution needed by October 1 to keep the government operating. Legislation authorizing the Federal Aviation Administration also expires on October 1. The debt ceiling needs to be raised before the end of the year or we will be facing another potential shutting down of the government. The fate of the Ex-Im Bank still needs to be resolved. And that pesky Transportation bill will be right back on the table.

Given Congress’s inability to function, it is small wonder that we have seen scant effort to pass legislation reforming the criminal justice when both parties agree that the issue must be addressed—a true rarity in this day and age.

Two bills are worth watching. One, a bill for the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (S.1169)—sponsored by Iowa Senator Charles Grassley passed unanimously by voice vote this week by the Judicial Committee which Grassley chairs. The legislation has not been fully authorized since 2002. The fight will be to restore funding for delinquency prevention programs which were drastically cut during the Bush administration. A companion bill—the Youth Justice Act (H.R. 2728)—was introduced in the House by Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA3).

The second bill to watch is the bi-partisan Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act of 2015 (H.R. 2944) co-sponsored by Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI-5) and Rep. Scott. The bill will overhaul the federal prison system based on proven reforms done at the state level, including reforming the probation system. The bill is truly bi-partisan with 19 Democrats and 18 Republican co-sponsors.

Both the bills would make significant steps towards reforming our broken criminal justice system however, neither will get much attention unless Republicans find a way to resolve their differences and get Congress back on track. They say they can do a better job of governing than Democrats. So far they have little to show to backup their claim.

Social Workers: Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem?


I became a social worker because I believe this profession has the greatest potential to create a more egalitarian society for all Americans and residents on the planet. We are taught the skills needed to organize and mobilize people and resources. We learn to do the research necessary to find solutions and policies to address our social problems, but we must be more political. That is the call of the 21st century for anyone not satisfied with the status quo. As Eldridge Cleaver once said: “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

As Black History Month rapidly draws to a close, we are reminded how much life is different for the average American depending on the color of your skin. The wealth of the median white household grew to 13 times that of the median black household in 2013, up from 10 times the wealth in 2010. Minorities still lag in health outcomes and educational achievement and blacks—especially black men—are disproportionately under the supervision of state and federal criminal justice systems.

Singer/songwriter John Legend used the white stage—I meant bright stage—of the Academy Awards ceremonies to inform America of the startling fact that more black men are under criminal justice supervision than were in slavery at any given time. True a greater percentage was enslaved but the sheer numbers are startling. One in three black men in this country has a felony, and black women are being locked up at an alarming rate.

Many argue that blacks disproportionately commit crimes. However, black men and women face a system where the police are often predatory, quick to arrest and sometimes shoot, and sentences are for longer terms than whites for the same crimes. In the words of Michelle Alexander, the criminal justice is the new Jim Crow.

The American society has long been hostile to the aspirations of black men as witnessed by a new report on lynching released by the Equal Justice Initiative. All of this leads to the destruction of opportunity for African Americans and weakening their ability to create healthy families without which the cycle of failure continues. Some view all of this talk as an excuse for the inability of black men to capitalize on their opportunities. In their minds discrimination does not exist in any significant degree as to deter the conscientious individual from achieving his or her full potential.

Many who desire and are willing to work towards a more egalitarian society are not by nature socialists. There are those who appreciate the free market system’s ability to distribute goods in society in a reasonably fair way but are not satisfied with the unequal distribution we have seen in the past several decades.

There will always be the greedy among us who will seek unfair advantage and use their economic power to game the system. The fact that we have a political system that encourages the free flow of money is evidence that money matters. Why else would the Koch brothers be willing to spend one billion dollars to influence the presidential election? This system favors and rewards those with wealth. Both parties are held hostage to donors without whom winning elections seems unattainable.

Meanwhile policies are put in place—tax cuts, campaign financing laws and gerrymandering, that solidifies the advantages of the wealthy and insure the election of a critical mass of legislators who assist in perpetuating their advantage. It becomes easier if you are able to demonize the opponents of this plutocratic scheme as un-American, envious of success, and those who would want to take the crumbs left for the middle class and give them to the undeserving poor. The irony is those who are able to see through the charade often become discouraged and complacent. These jaded citizens give up on the one thing that could really make a difference—they stop voting. And they fail to organize other jaded citizens.

Our economic and political systems are certainly stacked against the average American. Without collective bargaining, without collective organizing, little can be done individually to increase the valuation of labor or make sufficient political change. It is no coincidence that wage stagnation correlates significantly with the decline and near demise of labor unions.

The only line of defense against oligarchy is democracy, but it requires full participation by all of society’s citizenry and not just the comfortable. I believe the only way to get to full employment and adequate wages is by full political participation. How much different our society would be if ninety percent of its citizens would vote?

Solidarity for Racial Justice and Non-violence

As a group of students, staff, and faculty at the University of Utah College of Social Work, we join our voices with those of other schools, agencies, and communities against recent acts of racism and violence in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, Phoenix, Saratoga Springs (UT) and elsewhere. We recognize our varying experiences with and participation in systems of power and privilege, oppression and discrimination, which make this conversation complex, risky, and uncertain.

utahswWe recognize that racial biases are often unconscious, and that even well-intentioned individuals may lack awareness of our own biases. Thus, this conversation and related actions are necessary aspects of raising our consciousness with respect to racism, systemic violence, and injustice, and taking steps toward healing in our communities and our nation. We are compelled to speak out for justice by our personal convictions and our professional values and ethics; to remain silent in the face of injustice is a privilege that we reject as collusion.

In 2009, African Americans comprised 13% of the U.S. population but 42% of inmates on death row. These national patterns are often reflected in Utah, as well. In Salt Lake City, the rate of arrest for black residents is more than four times that of non-black residents. Minority youth in Utah are significantly more likely than non-minority youth to have aggravated sanctions and longer sentences, while non-minority youth were more likely to have mitigating sanctions applied to their cases, leading to shorter sentences.

Media portrayal of recent events of racism and violence has contributed to a polarization of this issue in which those standing in solidarity with victims of violence are deemed to be anti-law enforcement. We reject this polarizing view of these events, and openly recognize that we are all socialized and implicated within a larger system of racism in our country. Aspects of structural and institutional racism occur within law enforcement, as well as within other professions and the social, political, and economic institutions in the U.S.

We unite as students, staff, and faculty to stand in solidarity with those already working toward racial justice through continued action to reduce racism and violence. Specifically, we seek to examine and change, where needed, the work that we do in our profession and education. We ask that the College of Social Work discuss and develop the following actions:

• Promote and implement College-wide activities that center social justice and equality in the culture and educational aims of the CSW.

• Develop and support dialogue between law enforcement, the criminal justice system, service providers and communities to help heal the wounds of violence and injustice, and to build bridges among participants.

• Collaborate with campus units, local agencies, colleges, and communities on anti-racism and social justice work.

• Encourage the BSW and MSW Program Advisory Committees to develop action plans to address current pressing social justice issues in classroom discussions in a timely fashion.

• Establish regular professional development for campus and field faculty with regard to implementing critical dialogue about privilege, power, oppression and racism.

• Establish an Anti-Racism Task Force within the College of Social Work.

We have grave concerns about observed and documented patterns of racial violence by law enforcement agents across the U.S., historically and currently. As Rev. Meg Riley has noted, “We are buried up to our necks in a history of violence and brutality against people of color.” We know that communities of color and other minority groups are disproportionately stopped and arrested by law enforcement, and prosecuted and incarcerated by the criminal justice system. Across this country we have witnessed too many incidents in which some law-enforcement agents have harassed, beaten, choked, and/or shot civilians – particularly black men – and it has been done with impunity.

As a school of social work, we are professionally mandated to center social justice and anti-oppressive practice for the improvement of human and social well-being. We join colleagues at Smith College School for Social Work in listening deeply and compassionately to the pain, grief, anger, fear and loss in families and communities struggling with these events. We join Portland State School of Social Work and others in continuing to transform our professional work into efforts that promote socially just, anti-racist services, programs, policies, and change.

Media Contact

Dr. Christina Gringeri | Ph:  801-581-4864 |

University of Utah College of Social Work

Press Release: Social Work Helper Magazine was not involved in the creation of this content.

The Underlying Racism and Inequality Behind Ferguson


It has taken a great amount of time for me to process what has happened over the past several weeks in our country with regards to the events in Ferguson, Missouri. As a result, one of the messages I heard recently has been resonating with me which is “when women succeed, America succeeds,” spoken by President Obama at a women’s forum. What does this have to do with the underlying racism behind what happened in Ferguson? While analyzing the unfolding events of Ferguson, this quote provides a parallel and ideology for all disenfranchised groups in the United States. When inequality is eradicated, we all succeed, and America succeeds.

The inequality for African-Americans are generally no longer as blatant as the Jim Crow laws of the South, rather there is an underlying inequality that can be seen in the day-to-day lives and statistics for lives of African-Americans in the U.S. While watching the riots take place, it was hard to believe what was happening, but also made perfect sense at the same time. Anger, sadness, and most of all disappointment in the way our country handled the situation. Whether a cop, rioter, politician, professional, Christian, Jew, Atheist, black, white, male, or female, there was a wide array of emotions that were released.

I was most of all disappointed at the unfolding events because as a nation we were no longer unified, but torn in two. As President Obama stated in his address to the nation police vs. citizen trust, “regardless of race, region, faith we recognize that this is an American problem, and not just a black problem, or a brown problem, or a Native American problem…when anyone is not treated fairly under the law, that’s a problem.”

Although we have faith in our governmental systems on one hand, on the other hand we have the staggering statistics of social injustices done to the African-American community who feel like they have no voice within the United States. These social injustices were evident in Ferguson as primarily white governing bodies over the past year were giving the “boot” to the only African-American member of the school board and to the only African-American county executive while appointing their white counterparts. The African-American community believed these were racially charged actions by these governing bodies which is just one example of the underlying racism and inequality that lead to the unrest.

Racism and inequality is also evident in statistics across the board in key areas that lead to wide-spread poverty.  For instance, young African-American men are killed at least four times more by the authorities than any other race, are at least 1.5 times as likely to be a homicide victim than any other race, are incarcerated at a rate of at least six times more than whites, or that one in six African-American men will go to jail at some point in their life. These statistics could show one of two things, either African-Americans are engaging in more criminal activity or there is a huge inequality and race issue in these disparities. However, Mauer and King’s research suggests inequality and racial bias accounts for the disparities.

Their research suggests that African-Americans and whites commit crimes at approximately the same rate proportionally to their respective population, but that African-Americans are significantly more likely to be arrested. Carson’s research suggests similar findings showing that whites and African-Americans who are already in jail or prison are proportionally arrested at about the same rates for most crimes to their respective populations, minus violent crimes more African-Americans arrested and sexual assault more whites arrested. Not only are African-Americans arrested at substantially higher rates even though they commit the same percentage of crime compared to whites, but they are incarcerated on average twice as long as whites for similar if not the exact same crime.

In Ferguson, we see this especially being a problem because “over 80 percent of police traffic stops in the past five years have been of black drivers, despite blacks only comprising about two-thirds of the population.” Additionally, blacks are twice as likely to have their car searched than whites even though whites are about 1.5 times more likely to be found in possession of contraband. Not only do we see inequality in the justice system for African-Americans but we also see it in the economic system. For example, 21% of African-Americans in Ferguson live in poverty compared to only 7% of whites. These statistics highlight the sad racial disproportionately of the criminal justice system and larger societal system as a whole, since African-Americans make up less than 15% of the U.S. population.

African-Americans are often told by well-intentioned social welfare programs, “you don’t have to be a statistic”. I question to whom is this actually preaching to because it seems that being an African-American in the United States you are labeled as a “statistic” from day one in the eyes of the law and system. You can easily see how individual cases of inequality for the African-American population easily line up with many of the at risk statistics in our society. What this means is that all of the individual efforts produced by African Americans can be so easily overlooked, because of the perception and label that society has given them is perceived as “bad”.

Processing an event like Ferguson is not easy for anyone on any side of the debate.  Personally, I have been very invested in looking at all of the evidence I possibly could that was released by the Ferguson Police Department, the views of many conservative and liberal opinion and news websites, and hearing the voices from multiple perspectives especially from police officers and African-American men. The conclusion for this fairly all-inclusive investigation is that we all need to step back and realize these protests and riots are not just about Mike Brown, Ferguson, police shooting, or brutality against African-Americans in the U.S.

There is a larger conversation that needs to happen in order for our society to become equal successfully, and it is not a conversation that is based on whites vs. African-Americans, African American cops vs. whites, or white cops vs. African-Americans. Rather, the conversation should be based on how we create a more equal society for all to live, especially focusing on groups that are considered “vulnerable”, whether it is through policy, laws and on an individual level.

What is now becoming the start of a major social movement needs to be about “if the marginalized succeed, America succeeds”. It needs to address the small gains that African-Americans have made since the civil rights movement. As a country and especially a justice system, it does not seem that we care for the lives of African-Americans. As a society we have marginalized minority groups since the beginning of our country’s history, which was originally based on freedom, equality, and a sense of endless potential. One of the major underlying factors from Ferguson had nothing to even do with the justice system, rather it had to do with economic oppression. Those who believe that in the U.S. we have reached a point of equality, especially racial equality, should get their information not only from newspapers or websites, but academic journals and resources.

These journals are written and published by very qualified professionals and experts in their respective fields, not just politicians, news reporters, or overreaching corporations with an opinion. Not only has our society marginalized African-American and other immigrants, who came willingly or by force because of their skin color, we even did it to the native people because of slight differences in skin pigmentation or cultural beliefs. In the history of the United States and many parts of the world, we as a society have never reached a point of even moderate equality.

Racism and inequality impact the lives of African-Americans, but it is important to realize there are many more places these themes can be seen in every city in the U.S. The only way we can solve this problem is together as a society, country, state, or city by acknowledging the existence of an underlying inequality based on skin color or other identifying aspects of a person. Then, we need to fight for equality in all aspects of life.

As a social worker, it is my required duty to stand up for vulnerable populations. Beyond that realization, it should be every social workers job and goal to strive for equality for every race, gender, religion, or other social status indicator to create an America that is based in true freedom and equality. As a Christian, it is especially important to remember that in God’s eyes we are all one race, the human race. Regardless of any differences that we may have when “the human race succeeds, humanity succeeds” and this is the kind of equality and reconciliation we should be striving for.

Dope Sick With Mouths To Feed: The Struggles of American Women in Active Addiction

For certain subsections of society, it happens so often that its occurrence becomes commonplace such as the realities for those of us who live surrounded by the effects of active addiction and alcoholism. Like a soldier who served in Iraq or Afghanistan or a teenager who grew up in the heart of West Baltimore or East St. Louis, it is all but impossible for an addict to make it more that a couple of months without a family member, friend or acquaintance dying on them. In 2011, 41,340 Americans died of drug overdoses. That’s 113 deaths a day—a mortality rate that is higher than the rates for homicides, suicides and traffic accidents and one which is 400% greater today than it was in 1990. This surge in the national overdose rate can be attributed to many factors, but there is little doubt that the sea of prescription drugs that have flooded the market over the past 20 years are at the root of the problem.

One unintended consequence in this rising tide of prescription opiates and benzodiazepines is that women have suffered increases in opioid addiction and overdose deaths at a significantly higher clip than their male counterparts. Women, who have traditionally been seen as a low-risk group for drug-related deaths, have been gaining ground in recent years, nearly cutting the ratio of male to female overdose deaths in half thanks largely to a fivefold growth in prescription painkiller deaths among women in the millennium’s inaugural decade. This trend is problematic for a number of reasons, none more so than the fact that we’re still largely in the dark in our understanding of the differences in opiate abuse based on gender and are inconsistent—if not ineffective—at screening addicts and modifying treatment plans in ways that reflect those differences. How else can we explain the fact that admissions of women to substance abuse treatment have only inched forward a few percentage points over the last decade while overdose death rates and prescription opiate overdose hospital admissions have skyrocketed to unprecedented heights?

The cruel and pernicious irony in the deaths of the young is that the old and the living are made to bear the burden of their foreshortened lives. For the deceased, all of the suffering they endured and the sadness they felt at the prospect of forfeiting the bulk of their life’s balance ends up being little more than existential window dressing. Once the weariness, fever and fret of their existence fades away, the only people effected by circumstances of their passing are those they left behind.

The earth does not give preferential treatment to post-mortem youth and beauty, just as the hereafter shows no deference to the unripened soul. Death is final for the dead. To them it is as eternal as it is immutable; a thing devoid of ticking clocks and swirling moons and rotations of a sun whose rays will never again warm their unwrinkled flesh. Death is little more than a bondsman—a thing that could care less if it found you with a needle in your arm or plaque in your lungs so long as it gets its due. No, it is we the living who are held hostage by the deaths of the fecund and the fledgling members of our little worlds.

We sit and we think of the life they might have had—the life they should have had. We ask ourselves an unrelenting stream of what if’s and how come’s, meticulously analyzing the moments before their passing with the unspoken and unacknowledged believe that if we could just tie up all of the loose ends and unanswered questions surrounding their deaths, we could somehow save them. That we could bring them back whole and as they were—as if it had never happened.

American women have seen a fivefold increase in Rx drug abuse without a corresponding rise in access to treatment (Clarence Williams/Los Angeles Times)

A few weeks ago, I found out that a young woman in recovery in my hometown of Cincinnati—we’ll call her Laura—had died of a heroin overdose. I didn’t know her personally but the recovery community in the Queen City is small enough that I knew plenty of folks that did. From what they told me, Laura’s death followed an all too familiar script of those who struggle with opiate addiction, which is as follows: First, the addict rips and runs until they hit their “bottom” or get in trouble with the law/family/significant other, at which point they head to treatment and/or transitional living to get their mind and body right so they can take another crack at sobriety.

Once the fog lifts and they have their bearings again, they get immersed in 12-step programs, make a new network of sober friends and start beginning to pick up the pieces of the life they’ve left themselves. Pretty soon, things start turning around and they start getting used to sobriety. They start thinking about the future again—about getting a better job, going to college, getting their kids back. A semblance of normalcy and calm comes over their lives for the first time in what feels like forever. Then, for reasons often not even known to them, they go back out. After such a lengthy sabbatical from using, their bodies have temporarily lost most of the tolerance they gained over the years and they overestimate how much junk their body can handle. After that the next steps are often the morgue and a burial plot.

Most of what I’ve heard concerning the immediate circumstances of Laura’s death fits with that particular substance abuse narrative and is common among both men and women who suffer from opiate addiction. Although women do generally progress through the stages of addiction more quickly than men, it would seem that the mechanics and physiology of overdose deaths in both genders mirror one another. But, that’s just the how of it all. I don’t care as much about the how as I do the why and the what comes after. Obviously, I’m not able to speak with Laura and learn more about her battles with addiction, but I was fortunate enough to sit down with a few women at a transitional living house last month who were still in the throes of early sobriety and to listen to their stories. They were not Laura’s story, but they were certainly all variations on the same theme. One woman may have struggled with eating disorders and clinical depression, while another may have come from an abusive alcoholic home and been a victim of sexual abuse as a child, but it was abundantly clear in talking to all of them that the weight of their shared experience far exceeded that of their differences.

The first woman I talked to was Stephanie, a young lady from Knoxville who had come up to Cincinnati the year before in a last ditch effort to escape her addiction by changing her scenery rather than herself. Stephanie told me that she was 21, but by the looks of things, I’d wager that it had been a minute since she’d been carded at a bar. It’s not that Stephanie looked old—she really didn’t. It’s just that some mixture of drug use, trauma and genetic happenstance gave her the look of someone who was already world-weary beyond her years.

“It all started when I was 12 when I got my tonsils removed,” Stephanie told me. “I got prescribed hydrocodone—like the bigger bottles—and my mom is an addict, my dad’s an addict, my brother’s an addict, everyone in my family’s an addict. So, when I ran out of my medicine—my mom was the one drinking my medicine—I remember, she had to go out in the middle of the night and buy these pills—these little blue pills—and I didn’t know what the hell they was. They call em Percocet 30s up here. I call em Roxy 30s. Whatever, same thing, so that’s when it started for me and whenever I came off it I was withdrawing and didn’t even know I was withdrawing from pain medicine, so it never stopped from there. Started smoking weed, drinking, started doing pills every day. Started snorting pills…ended up getting suspended from school for overdosing. Took about 50 pills and uh…”

“You got suspended for overdosing?” I asked

“I was at school there and they took me off on stretcher.” Stephanie said. “Zero tolerance for drug abuse at school. I got suspended for 6 months and went to an alternative school.”

“So your school never sent you to treatment or anything like that?”

“Never suggested that I should go to treatment.” she told me. “Never any of that, so I went to alternative school and got suspended from alternative school for doing drugs there too, and while I was suspended from school I ran away. After that, I got put into foster care, about 2 hours from my hometown and it just got worse up there. My foster mom let me drive her car, we drank every day…the third day I was there all these cars just started piling up in the driveway and it was just like party, party, party every night there.”

“And this was your foster mom?” I asked.

“Yeah, and we just partied. She was like, ‘I’m the cool foster mom. You can drink so long as you drink at home.’ So I did and I found pills there so I started doing pills real bad. Got a job and spent the money on drugs—pills, pills, pills, pills, pills—and then moved back to Knoxville when I found out my mom got cancer when I was 18. She had just got out of prison and she got cancer in her back. So I took care of her and she had legal prescriptions and needles and everything, so it was like, ‘this is what’s up. I get free pills, free needles, let’s do it.’ So, I was pill sick one day and my brother was like, ‘aw, sis, mom ain’t got no more Roxies, we’re gonna have to get some of her morphine’, and I was like, ‘oh, shit, man’ and he was like, ‘you’re gonna have to shoot it up,’ and I was like, ‘okay, let’s do it.’ And that’s when the needles started for me. Morphine is, pretty much, just like heroin. I mean it really is. I was going really hard. I overdosed twice on it and when my mom died all shit went to hell. She died 3 years ago—my high school graduation—after that I just went downhill. Went to treatment once, left treatment, robbed the treatment facility for $1,000, high as shit and then went to jail for 9 months. Got outta jail, got off probation. I was getting high for another month and then I decided to go to Cincinnati—yeah, great idea. Started smoking pot up here, drinking—turned 21 up here—drink, drink, drink, drink, drink, then I found heroin and y’all know where that leads to.”

“Why Cincinnati?” I asked.

“My dad lives up here.” Stephanie said. “I called him and I was like, ‘come get me, I can’t handle this. I’m tired of doing drugs. I’m tired of sticking a needle in my arm. I’m 20 years old, I don’t want to do this—follow in the footsteps of everyone else in my family.’ So, I moved up here and thought, ‘well, I don’t know nobody.’ I only had one friend that lived up here that smoked weed and I thought, ‘yeah, I can just smoke weed because that ain’t my problem. So, I started smoking weed, drinking—going to the bar because I was legal and it was about a year ago that I started doing heroin…I started shooting heroin in May, but I was snorting it first and I was like, ‘oh, it’s okay, I’m just snorting it. I’m not putting a needle in my arm. That’s my addiction. That’s the problem. The needle’s the problem, not the drugs.’ That wasn’t it at all.”

Within a couple of months, heroin had completely taken over Stephanie’s life and it wasn’t long until she lost her manager’s job at McDonald’s, got kicked out of her apartment building and started going through the revolving doors of detox on a regular basis, spending just enough time there to get well and going back to using as soon as she left. Eventually, Stephanie ended up going to the Center for Chemical Addictions Treatment—known in Cincinnati’s recovery parlance as “The Ccat House”—for inpatient rehab and ended up in a New Foundations Transitional Living house when she was released. At the time I spoke with her, Stephanie had 36 days clean, an amount of time that was near the median for the women I talked to.

A quick overview of the rise in drug overdoses in the state of Ohio


With 10 months and 4 days of sobriety under her belt on the day I visited, a young redhead named Amanda had gone longer between drinks or drugs than any of the other woman in her house. It was an impressive achievement to be sure, but may not serve as a good barometer of her chances for long term sobriety because 10 months and 2 days of her clean time was obtained while in prison on charges of forgery and receipt of stolen property. Now, it’s not any more or less laudable to rack up stretches of sobriety in prison or an inpatient treatment center, but it’s worth noting that it is sobriety obtained in what are little more than highly regimented simulacra of the real world. Amanda may have had more than 10 months sober in prison—where, it must be said, drugs are still in abundance—but she was only on day 2 of sobriety without borders and at a greater danger of relapse and overdose than her non-incarcerated peers. Numerous studies bear out the increased risk of overdose death in the weeks and months after a prisoner’s re-entry to the community, with one study of more than 30,000 inmates in Washington state showing that prisoners have a 12.7 times larger chance of overdose death than the general population. Add to that the fact that women have been shown to have more difficulty quitting and a higher rate of relapse than men, and the prognosis for Amanda’s sobriety doesn’t look great.

For her part, Amanda didn’t seem too terribly worried. A 20 year old with a spiked up pixie haircut, puckish smile, and a generationally appropriate amount of metal and ink all over her person, she certainly didn’t behave like someone was uneasy with her freedom after close to a year in prison.

“From a really young age I knew there was something wrong with me.” she told me. “I was adopted so I always felt like there was this void in my life. And, my adopted dad is a cop, so I always wanted to rebel against him…I played softball—select softball—and I had a bad knee so sometimes they’d prescribe me Vicodin for that. So, that started and then I had an underbite and I had to get jaw surgery and they prescribed me Percocet for that. 2 big bottles of it. And then I started selling it. And then I realized, I like to drink on it more than I like to sell it. And so, I started doing that real bad and started going through the whole Percocet-Xanax ordeal, which is when I started partying a lot. Drinking a lot…I was drinking a 30-case of Budweiser to myself a night. And then I got introduced to cocaine and…I just loved it.”

“Had you gotten in any trouble at this point?” I asked.

“Sort of…that was about the time I started hanging out with those people and, like, my dad started noticing shit going on with me. My grades dropped, I stopped playing softball and you know, I went crazy with emo kid status. Like, I started cutting myself…attempted suicide a few times. I was like, ‘I’m really fucked up.’ So, I was really, really high on cocaine one night and I was like, ‘dude, I’m seriously going to die.’ Like, ‘I’m really going to have a heart attack.’ And my best friend just so happened to have some heroin with her, and I was like, ‘man, is this going to bring me down or is this going to explode my heart?’ And she was like—I’ll never forget her saying this to me—she said, ‘Amanda, I’m going to give this to you, but I’m just gonna warn you right now that it’s going to change your life forever.’ And I was like, ‘dude, I’m a fucking grown up, I know what I’m fucking doing’ and…”

“Were you actually a grown-up at that time?”

“Almost.” Amanda said. “I was, like, 17. So she gave me a line that was this big (pinches fingers close together so they’re almost touching). I remember it was on a toilet seat at my friend’s basement party or whatever. I had already consumed  shit ton of alcohol…”

“The seat?” I asked.

“Yes, the seat of the toilet.” she said.

“Not the tank in the bank?”

“No, the seat of the toilet. So, the dopeboy that me and her went to, we didn’t know he sold heroin as well, but I was running his cocaine for him. He would pay me $10 every time I left the house. So, every time I left the house to just go down the street, he would pay me $10. And after that, after I did the heroin, I was like oh—my—god. Like, speedballing was my new thing. I didn’t know it had a name yet, but I started doing that. I was snorting it—didn’t think it was that bad because I was snorting it. And, um, I was a functioning addict there for a little bit. I really don’t think there’s such a thing anymore, but at the time I thought there was. I had a job, I moved out on my own to my own apartment. I was having a lot of house parties…beating people up…getting, like, stupid drunk. And then I got into dental school, and I was going to dental school and I was top of my class, but I was still using. I remember one day driving—I was pawning a lot of stuff—one day I went home to get some more stuff to pawn, and my dad’s a cop so of course I’m stealing all this shit from him. And, like, he was in the driveway, in his cop car. And I was like, you know, ‘this happens all the time’ and I was just gonna run in—I was in my scrubs all the time because I thought I looked more professional that way and that I could get away with more shit, which was true, but my dad called me into the car and he said—oh, and by this time I had shot up 3 times—and when I got into the car he was like, ‘I know you’re using heroin,’ and I just, like, broke down because I sorta knew I had a problem.”

“You sorta knew you had a problem?”

“I would withdraw sometimes, but I didn’t know what it was.” Amanda told me.

Her dad ended up sending her to an outpatient Suboxone clinic, but she got kicked out for selling the Suboxone instead of taking it and and went back out. It wasn’t long before she was enrolled in a different Suboxone clinic and she stayed clean for 4 or 5 months until her 18th birthday when she met her birth mother for the first time.

“I was sober when I met my birth mom.” Amanda said. “Me and my girlfriend went out to meet her one day and she was on Percocet, so, once I figured that out it wasn’t long before we started using together. Um, and this is when I got introduced to crack. And, I just…I was like, ‘this is the greatest thing in the universe’ and it took the place of the cocaine. I just loved the taste, the smell, the bell ringing in my head—it took away a lot of my issues and, I mean, I was really messed up. I ended up being homeless and me and my girlfriend were living in my car and then I, um, got in some trouble and I got a theft from Home Depot, which wasn’t that big of a deal at that point. They put me on diversion, or whatever, and then it got really, really bad because I was like, ‘I got away with it’ and I started doing a lot, a lot, a lot of drugs. So, I came up with the bright idea to steal my dad’s checks and forged a shit ton of checks. And then, this was back in October, I got arrested. The night after I had a mini stroke…”

“You had a mini stroke?” I asked.

“I had a mini stroke. They called it something else…it started with a T.”

“A Transient Ischemic Attack?”

“Something like that.” she said. “My entire right side was paralyzed. I called the ambulance on my cell and said don’t bring the cops and stuff like that. They brought the cops. But the cops just left me alone. They brought me to the hospital and let me go. Ummm, the next day they kicked down the hotel door and I was arrested for forgery and receiving stolen property.”

“Does anyone in your adopted family have problems with addiction?” I asked.

“No, no one in my adopted family is an addict.”

“So they don’t…do they have any idea what…?”

“They don’t understand anything about this lifestyle,” Amanda said. “But it was crazy, because when I met my birth family, like, everyone’s exactly like me. Like, it’s so fucking weird because…I don’t like that at all. I see so much of myself in my birth mom and it’s just disgusting to me. I mean, she tried to choke me out.”

“Your birth mother tried to choke you out?” I asked.

“Uh-huh. One night I went to my dopeboy and I guess I didn’t get enough crack for her liking so she tried to choke me out when I was driving her back home. It was so mind-blowing, I mean, I was like, I didn’t have her my whole life and now I met her and she’s treating me like this. She told me I was a piece of shit, like all of this…like, ‘this is the reason why I gave you up for adoption.’ So, I’ve just been to a lot of rehabs, a lot of psych wards, I’ve been to rehabs for eating disorders. You know, the whole nine…”


A Northern Kentucky mother grieves at the funeral of her 22-year old daughter, who died of a heroin overdose last September (The Enquirer/Carrie Cochran)


Sitting next to Amanda the entire time she was talking was Jessie, a 23-year old woman who, despite over a decade of hard drug use, looked young enough to still be in high school. Due to her youthful appearance and waifish frame, Jessie’s disposition—which could have come off as argumentative and abrasive—took on a precocious air. Whenever she talked, her arms and hands would languidly gesticulate about her body, often displaying relatively fresh bruising from her IV heroin use in the crooks of her elbows. To hear her story, it’s pretty obvious that Jessie never had much of a chance of avoiding the clutches of addiction.

“My mom’s an addict and so’s my sister,” Jessie told me, “so, I was kind of already introduced to it. I started at a really young age, like, my dad wasn’t around. Nothing like that. I lived with my mom until I was about 7 and then she overdosed at my elementary school. So, me and my sister was…”

“She overdosed at your elementary school?”

“Well, they had called her in because I had been getting in a lot of trouble at school—like, stealing shit from other kids and stuff—so, I guess someone called her in to have a parent-teacher conference or something about it and while she was there she overdosed.”

For a few seconds there was just silence. After an trying and failing to find some sort of adequate response to this information, Jessie just continued talking.

“Yeah, so then they called CPS (Child Protective Services) and then my grandma ended up calling CPS because of that and because my sister got pregnant at the age of 12.” she said. “She got pregnant at the age of 12 and had my nephew when she was 13, so my grandma already knew that shit was not right and that my mom was an addict. So, my grandma called CPS and she took me and my sister away from my mom, and then we lived with her and I would run away from there all of the time because I wanted to be with my mom, but my mom would never let me come there so I would just find myself at random places.”

“And how old were you?” I asked.

“8—I was 8 years old. After a couple of years of me running away from my grandma’s I started drinking and smoking and she just got sick of it, so when I was 14 she sent me away to my dad in Kentucky. I didn’t even know who he was and he ended up beating the shit out of me so I didn’t stay there long. Basically, they all got sick of sending me places and me running away, so they all just said that I was living with them and just let me go off and do my own thing. So, I started living on my own at 16. Like, just different places. Wherever I could.”

“Were you going to school at this point?” I asked.

“No. I did, like, the first 2 weeks of my freshman year and then I left and haven’t been back to school since.” she told me. “Okay, so…in that time, my mom met a sugar daddy. She met a sugar daddy when I was 16 and she started working for, like, his firm thing. And he was addicted to Oxys, and she was addicted to Oxys, so, it was like a perfect little thing. And, um, he had this huge house and he had, like, 5 cars and—yeah—my mom was like, ‘Yo, I got money. You don’t have to live on the streets no more. You can come live with me.’ And I was like, ‘Alright. This house is huge. This is nice.’ And he bought me all this cool stuff and, like, he didn’t know that I knew that my mom did pills and stuff…and that I knew that he did ’em…and that she was secretly giving ’em to me too. Yeah, so my mom…my mom started me on Oxys and then my sister, she got kicked out of her apartment so she was living in the house too and we were all just snorting Oxys together.”

“Like the family that snorts together, stays together?”

“Yeah. Honestly, it brought us closer together. I mean, my mom never really loved me—at least, that just what I feel like.” She said.

“Really? So, the times that you were using with your family…”

“I felt like my mom loved me. Like, I had my family. I had my mom and my sister and we was a family when we was getting high together. I don’t know, that probably sounds crazy to you, but it makes sense in my head. Okay, so I did that. I stayed there for a while. And then my step-dad found out—he left town and somehow my mom figured out where he kept all his money in his safe and by the time he got back she had drained his safe and all 84 of the Oxy 80s he had left, you know, because she was supporting my habit and her habit and my sister’s habit and my baby’s dad’s habit, who I had picked up from Norwood somewhere in there.”

“Hold on.” I said. “When in all of this did you have a kid?”

“Oh wait, I was pregnant. I forgot about that. But, I still did pills while I was pregnant.” she said.

“Okay, and this was when you were, what, 16?”

“Yep…No, actually this was when I was 17.” Jessie told me. “So, he moved in and he’s my baby’s dad now, but he wasn’t my baby’s dad at 16. It took a year for me to get pregnant, you see what I’m saying? So, I moved him in there and my mom didn’t want to cut him in on the pills, because he was doing pills too. Okay, so he wasn’t happy with that so we had to move out…and because my mom threw him down the stairs…”

“Your mom threw your boyfriend down the stairs?”

“Yeah, well, here’s the story behind that one.” she said. “Like, she’s got this really big bedroom, right? And along with a really big bedroom comes a really big closet. Well, that’s where we would all go to…see, she had this mirror that she would scrape the pills onto and we just knew that, when we got up in the morning we’d just go in there and do our line. Well, that morning he happened to follow me in there thinking that he was going to get a line and my mom was like, ‘uh-uh…you ain’t getting nothing.’ And they started arguing and she pushed him down the stairs. And he was like, ‘oh no, we ain’t living here no more. Your mom won’t get me high. I ain’t sitting here sick watching you guys get high.’”

“What did you do after that?” I asked.

“After that we had to move out to Indiana where my baby’s dad’s mom lived. And when we first got out there we didn’t have to pay for pills anymore because his mom just got us high, but after a while she’d run out of Percs and we’d buy them. I don’t know how we were getting money…oh yeah, he was kicking in doors and shit. He kicked in the neighbor’s door because the neighbor sold weed. And he was actually his friend…and, like, stole his safebox and it had $6,500 so that kept us alright for a little bit. And then, in that time, me and him got into it and he tried to put me out on the street so I moved back to Cincinnati because I didn’t know anybody in Indiana. And, I can’t be on the streets out there, know what I’m saying? So, I caught a bus and went back to Cincinnati.”

“Where was your baby during all of this?”.

“He was with me.” Jessie said. “Oh, wait. Yeah, I got pregnant in Indiana, came back and…oh man, did I miss all of that? Woah. I got pregnant in Indiana and moved back to—that’s why I moved back to Cincinnati. I said I didn’t want to have my baby in Indiana. I was just against it. I didn’t know anybody, besides the fact that I didn’t want to be there anyway and that was my prime excuse. So, I moved him back to Ohio with me and got us an apartment in Mt. Carmel, in a place that was like dope fiend central. Everyone was on pills except for a select few and I didn’t really talk to the few that was on heroin cause I was on pills and they was like, way worse off than me, you know what I’m saying? I was still doing pills when I was pregnant, but I had stopped doing the Oxys and in my head, I’m like, ‘this is better, I’m not doing Oxys’, and I just did Percs. Well, my son came out…well, he came out with clubbed feet, but it wasn’t cause I was doing pills. My baby’s dad has that bloodline in his family, like, his cousins have it and shit—umm, that’s what my doctor told me. So, I have my apartment, and I had my baby, and we was getting high, but I was still a good mom…I think. And I still took care of my kid and all that. And then, he kicked in my front door, or something happened. My baby’s daddy kicked in my front door.”

“Are we talking about literally kicking in your front door?” I asked.

“Literally kicked in my front door…and then we fist fought upstairs for about an hour. And, when stuff like that happens—it was a Section 8 apartment—when stuff like that happens it’s like, no tolerance and you’re getting kicked out. So, I left and I brought my kid with me and moved into my sister’s in Goshen. And, when I got there, her baby’s dad had just got out of prison and their way of making money was he was selling heroin. And, I had never seen it, I had never done it, but when I got there I knew that I hadn’t had anything in 2 days and I was sick and I didn’t have a lot of money. So, my sister was like, ‘you’re sick, so I’m not going to charge you for this, but here’s this line of heroin.’ And I was like, ‘I seen what this shit does. I seen what it does and I don’t want to no part of it,’ but I did it anyways. And, uh, yeah. That was the first time my sister gave me heroin.”

“And you were how old? 20?”

“Uhhhh…no, 19.” Jessie said. “I was 19. And, so I got a job, like, out of nowhere, 2 days after I came back to Cincinnati. I was getting fat checks and I was all getting spent on dope. Like, I was my sister’s number 1 customer. Plus, I lived in the house, you know what I’m saying? It was like, on demand. I got to ride with him when he was going to re-up and we was just snorting dope the whole time.”

“And your kid was with you, the whole time this was going on?” I asked.

“Uh-huh.” she said. “And my sister had a kid too. It was just one big crack house, heroin using family.”

“Did all of the usual, motherly duties and such happen while you were there?”

“Yeah, I told myself that was why I was doing the heroin.” said Jessie. “To keep myself energized so I can take care of my kid. Because, in my head, I’m a single mom now because I’ve left my baby’s dad, and I need this to keep me up and…I can’t be sick with my kid…you can’t do that. So, you know, I did everything I was supposed to do and my kid was well taken care of. I was a normal mom. ”

A normal mom? To us, banging heroin while living with your junky sister and her drug dealer boyfriend ain’t normal. But for Jessie—someone who had to sit and watch EMTs cart her OD’ed mother away from her school in an ambulance at the age of 7 and whose idea of taking care of her kids was making sure they had their line of Oxy ready for them when they woke up—that was normal. The only hope that Jessie, her kid and all of the women I talked to have is that they find a new normal before they start the cycle all over again

~~~~~~~ Author’s Note ~~~~~~~

<em>On the night before I was to publish this article, one of my cousins died at the hands of this insidious disease of addiction. The last time I saw her was early Thursday morning after a midnight meeting of a 12-step group in Cincinnati. She had used sometime earlier that day, but was not high so much as she was in state of blurry wellness peculiar to opiate addicts who have built up a tolerance to the drugs they use. When she shared during the meeting, she had been very emotional, talking about how it seemed like it was just so much harder for her to get clean this time and hoping that this increased degree of difficulty would help keep her sober for longer than the periods when she had been able to stop using more easily. Once the meeting was over, we talked about how she was doing and about how much we loved another one of our cousins who had died from Hepatitis C as the result of this disease, but who had more than 20 years sobriety when he passed. As we parted ways, she asked me if I could drive her to a meeting the next night and I told her I could and that she should give me a call tomorrow night, knowing that there was a more than decent chance I wouldn't hear from her. The next time I saw her face it was on a memorial on someone's Facebook wall. She was 24 years old and had a 6-year old son.</em>

<em>I simply ask you to consider donating a little money to the <a href="">Center for Chemical Addictions Treatment in Cincinnati</a>, which helps hundreds of addicts and alcoholics to get sober each year.</em>

<em>Thank you,
Drew Gibson</em>


Letter to the Editor: A Social Worker’s Thoughts on the Killing of Michael Brown

This is a Letter to the Editor that I received from a member of the social work community. Although I disagree with the opinion and facts of this reader, I believe this Letter to the Editor provides a perfect example of how conservatives and non-minorities conduct their analysis of the events in #Ferguson. I will be writing a response in order to open a dialogue on the competing viewpoints. You may also want to view “Social Work Appears Absent from Ferguson Global Conversation”~Deona Hooper, MSW

Here is the Letter to the Editor in full:

Hi I’m a licensed clinical social worker who has been working in the field since 2000. I read your latest article “Social workers Appears absent in #Ferguson Global Conversation”. I appreciate your opinion on Michael Brown’s shooting & I know there is a tremendous amount of pain in the communities of color because of years of experiencing prejudice & discrimination. At the same time, different opinions need to be discussed openly for the conversation on race relations & police brutality to progress.

I consider myself a very socially liberal person, but I strongly feel most of the media, far left wing activists, & some prominent members of the black community were quick to label the PO a murderer without hearing all the crucial evidence from both sides.

surveillance_mike_brown_1I know Brown’s friend (Dorian Johnson) was a key eye witness from the beginning, but since the shooting, it has become clear he has a history of lying to the police. For example, Johnson told the police & the media after the shooting that Brown & himself were not doinganything wrong when they were confronted by the PO.

The video from just minutes earlier proves that Johnson was with Brown while Brown was committing the robbery & nearly assaulting the shop keeper. From my understanding, if Brown was still alive, he might be charged with a felony. We also now know Brown had marijuana in his system at the time of the confrontation which might help us understand his mindset at the time.

It’s also really difficult to take Johnson’s testimony of the shooting seriously. It was widely reported that in the past, he was accused of stealing a backpack & I believe lying to the police regarding the incident.  The PO also experienced a swollen face with a possible broken eye socket from his confrontation with Brown.  This information flies in the face of Brown being called a gentle giant.

Of course, Brown did not deserve to be killed at only at eighteen years old & I feel very sorry for him & his grieving & traumatized family. At the same time, there is a strong possibility that the PO would most likely not get charged with homicide because of some of the contradictory evidence I described.

I think one of the most important things to remember right now is for people to continue protesting for justice in the case, but at the same time not be so quick to jump to conclusions about the PO being a murderer & a racist. I’m aware there are still very racist cops throughout the country, but it does not mean the PO was not within the law to protect himself if Brown used physical force against him.

No matter if the PO is found guilty or not, we must allow our criminal justice system to examine all the evidence & make a final verdict. I just wanted to express my opinion to you & I hope I was respectful because I did not mean to be insensitive to anyone. I’ve never written an email to a social work site, but I’ve been following the Brown killing very closely.

Giovanni Forcina, LCSW

Prison Reform and Race Equity

Too many people are incarcerated in the United States, particularly people of color. With nearly 1.5 million Americans in prison in 2012, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the world, far exceeding runners-up Russia and Rwanda. Despite comprising only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

People of color have been disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration. While African-Americans and Latinos make up 15 and 17 percent of the population, respectively, they account for 38 and 23 percent of the prison population. Currently, African-American men have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in their lifetimes and Latino men have a 1 in 6 chance. These figures are overwhelming compared to the rate of incarceration for White men, who have an overall 1 in 17 chance of ever going to prison in their lifetime.

Racial inequality in incarceration is particularly evident for drug offenses. Currently, two-thirds of all people in prisons for drug offenses are either African American or Latino. According to Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, “These figures are far out of proportion to the degree that these groups use or sell drugs”. For example, a 2011 survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that White Americans use every category of illegal drugs at significantly higher rates than African-Americans or Latinos, yet they are far less likely to be convicted for drug offenses.

incarc rate by race & gender - webWar on Drugs & Race

Advocates for prison downsizing agree that mass incarceration and its disparate impact on communities of color can be directly attributed to policies stemming from the “War on Drugs.” In response to rising drug use in the 1980s, law enforcement and sentencing shifted dramatically to a punitive “hard on drugs” approach encouraging the imprisonment of low-level, non-violent drug users and sellers. Since then, the prison population has increased five-fold and incarceration for drug offenses has gone up 1,100 percent. With as few as 40,000 drug offenders serving prison sentences in 1980, this number has snowballed to over half a million in 20092. Lengths of prison terms have also dramatically increased.   In 1986, drug offenders spent an average of 22 months in federal prison; by 2004, sentences for similar crimes were nearly 3 times longer. In sum, over the past 40 years more and more people have been arrested and sent to prison, while fewer and fewer have been released or diverted.

prison jail drug web-1

Racial bias, discrimination, and unequal treatment under the law have also characterized the United State’s anti-drug crime agenda. As the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project explains, “By 1980, the link between minorities, drugs, and crime was firmly cemented in American rhetoric and anti-drug policy.” Evidence of discrepancies in the treatment of people of color in the criminal justice system has been well documented.

  • For example, federal sentencing guidelines from 1986 to 2010 held that 5 grams of crack cocaine, a substance more readily available in communities of color, was equivalent to 500 grams of powder cocaine, a substance consider chemically identical to crack cocaine but more readily available in White communities.
  • Further, the Sentencing Project cites that people of color are more likely to be targeted and racially profiled by law enforcement resulting in higher initial entry into the criminal justice system.
  • In addition, legal scholars Fishman and Schazenback found in 2012 that prosecutor are significantly more likely to pursue the maximum length of sentence for minority defendants, while judges are more likely to convict these defendants and agree to longer sentences.

Though not explicitly racist, many anti-drug policies and implementation strategies echo the American Legal System’s long legacy of racial injustice, continuing the American tradition of targeted injustice against people and communities of color.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Policy

The most notorious and influential policy resulting from the War on Drugs are federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. Mandatory drug minimums are judicial guidelines requiring convicted drug offenders to serve an automatic and standard minimum length of time in prison- regardless of criminal context. These policies are rooted in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which first established the national drug schedule, followed by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which outlined punishments for federal crimes. The resulting mandatory minimums are “triggered” by specific quantities of eight controlled substances, including heroine, crack and powder cocaine, marijuana, with increasing minimums for large quantities and aggravating factors such as weapon procession or drug trafficking (mandatory minimums are also triggered from LSD, PCP, methamphetamine, and propanamide.). Unlike the majority of crimes in the U.S., for which judges determine sentence length on a case-by-case basis, mandatory minimums intentionally restrict judicial discretion7.

However, mandatory minimums were not considered controversial until the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. With this omnibus drug bill, President Reagan significantly increased the length of minimum sentences while reducing the quantities of controlled substances that trigger the minimum. These guidelines form the basis for our current federal drug sentencing and require either a five or ten-year sentence without parole for the majority of convictions9. Due to aggravating circumstances, some offenders can be sentenced to life in prison without parole. These changes had major implications for first time and low-level offenders. For example, before 1986, simple possession would have required offenders to pay a fine. After 1986, these same individuals could be sentenced to a federal penitentiary for a minimum of two, three, or five years for the least severe offense depending on the substance.

In 1994, Congress approved the “Safety Valve” exception to mandatory minimums. These provisions allow prosecutors to refrain from requesting mandatory minimums for defendants found guilty of low-level offenses, such as simple procession or intent, while meeting certain case key criteria. These requirements include a lack of criminal history, violence, weapon procession, as well as limited involvement in drug enterprise and full compliance with sharing information with law enforcement.

Most recently, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine. Previously, 1 gram of crack cocaine was held to the same standards as 100 grams of powder cocaine. After 2010, this gap was amended to a 1 in 17 ratio. While this ruling represents a positive step towards sentencing equality, a disparity between the two substances remains.

11-18-1to100-disparity2Policy Shortcomings

Despite the efforts of the Fair Sentencing Act and Safety Valve procedures, federal mandatory drug minimums continue to support an unsustainably large and racially disproportionate prison population. These shortcomings are highlighted when considering the two primary intentions of the mandatory minimums- both of which have failed to be realized.

First, mandatory minimums were intended to reduce major drug trafficking. Rather, these procedures have been used to incarcerate low-level offenders. As penalties are determined by the quantity of drugs involved, this broad policy fails to recognize the function or threat of the individuals who are typically arrested and charged with drug trafficking. For example, a currier may be carrying large quantities of a substance but often represents the least culpable participant in an international drug selling organization. In the Sentencing Commissions September 2013 report to Congress, they reported the category of drug offenders most often subject to mandatory minimums are street level dealers, many levels away from major suppliers and trade leaders. As their report explains, “While Congress appears to have intended to impose these mandatory penalties on ‘major’ or ‘serious’ drug traffickers, in practice the penalties have swept more broadly.”

Second, mandatory minimums were intended to reduce sentencing disparity. The original authors believed limiting judicial discretion and fixing sentence range would result in uniformed prison terms. However, contemporary research indicates the opposite has occurred because sentencing guidelines continue to require a tremendous amount of judicial discretion while doing little to address the issue of racial inequity head on. For example, judges must decide if a mandatory sentence can be triggered in the first place and if any aggravating circumstances can be proven to increase the sentence above the minimum.

According to a national study conducted at Northwestern University, defendants of color were significantly more likely to qualify for mandatory minimums and aggravating circumstances compared to white defendants, and were also less likely to qualify for Safety Vales exemptions. Their findings indicate 41.1 percent of Latino offenders were subject to minimum guidelines compared to only 28 percent of White defendants. Further, 70 percent of drug cases involving white offenders proved aggravating circumstances, as compared to 88.4 percent of cases involving African-American offenders. Qualitative data from the Northwestern study indicate a number of judges would have preferred to reduce the sentences for people of color, in particular, due to mitigating circumstances but were unable to due to restrictions in judicial discretion. As the conclusion explain,

In short, our findings suggest that judicial discretion does not contribute to, and may in fact mitigate, racial disparities in Guidelines sentencing. Policy makers interested in redressing racial disparity today should pay much closer attention to the effects of mandatory minimums and their effect on prosecutorial and judicial discretion.”

The Smarter Sentencing Act

In light of growing national awareness about the current state of crisis in our prison system, not limited to a failed War on Drugs, overcrowded facilities, skyrocketing recidivism rates, and irrefutable racial inequity, federal policy makers, think tanks, and Attorney General Eric Holder have been pouring over the issue of sentencing reform for the better part of two years. The current status of this effort is a bill known as “The Smarter Sentencing Act” submitted to the Senate floor by the Judiciary Committee on January 30, 2014.

If approved, the Smarter Sentencing Act would:

  • Reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and direct the US Sentencing Commission to lower sentencing guidelines accordingly;
  • Give judges more leeway to ignore mandatory minimums in cases with mitigating factors;
  • Make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the sentencing disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine from 100:1 t0 18:1 by reducing the amount of crack triggering five and ten year mandatory minimums from 5 and 28 grams respectively to 50 and 280 grams. This act also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for possessing five grams of crack. However, the Fair Sentencing Act only applied to offenders prosecuted after 2010. The Smarter Sentencing Act would retroactively reduce the sentences of individuals currently serving sentences based on the old crack cocaine sentencing guideline.

The Smarter Sentencing Act is a step in the right direction and is likely to have a major positive impact on the prison population if passed. In particular, the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act is likely to reduce the over-representation of people of color in the prison system. However this act is not enough. In particular, a disparity between crack and powder cocaine continues to exist. In addition, only a small cross-section of the sentencing guidelines will be reformatted.

As social workers, we must remain active in the fight to end mass incarceration and the over-representation of people of color in the criminal justice system. We must be creative and vigilant in creating new solutions to prison reform. According the Urban Institute’s “Stemming the Tides” report, here are some suggestions for additional “Front-End Changes” (i.e. reducing the number of people committed to prison and reducing their sentence length) and “Back-End Changes” (i.e. increasing the number of people released from prison and reducing recidivism).

Front-End Changes

  • Reduce all drug sentencing minimums by half
  • Increase access to Safety Valves exceptions
  • Increase the use of drug treatment diversion
  • Increase access to community-based drug treatment and services to prevent drug crime

Back-End Changes

  • Apply all current and future sentencing guideline reductions retroactively
  • Increase use of Early Release programs for good behavior and negative drug tests, as well as for the terminally ill and inmates over 70 years old
  • Increase transition and re-entry services and begin services prior to release date
  • Increase the use of probation and house-arrest

What are your thoughts on prison reform? How can we reduce the prison population, increase racial equity, and find an alternative approach to drug treatment? How can we, as social workers, be more involved in this fight for justice? Share your thoughts and comments below!

Domestic Violence is Witnessed by Children Far More Than We Know


Imagine a child watching domestic violence between their parents. It’s not a stretch to think of how scary that must be for her – the people who are supposed to love and protect her are showing just the opposite. One would hope that external forces would come to play that would help change that. But a new piece of research about to be published in the journal Psychology of Violence tells us that the chances of intervention are far less than most of us would hope for.

Researcher Sherry Hamby from The University of the South comes out with some powerful statistics. In more than a third of the cases that her team researched, the physical injury occurred yet only one in four cases resulted in a police report. Children were hurt in about one in 75 cases. As Dr. Hamby notes, there is a link between witnessing domestic violence and childhood mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, becoming a victim in teenage dating, and diminished success at school. There is also a link between domestic violence and bullying.

As I read this material, I was reminded of a 9-1-1 tape that I heard some years ago while undergoing some training. The tape is chilling. You hear a young girl desperately seeking the help of the police while her mother’s partner is assaulting her mother. At one point the child screams out to her mother that the police are coming. Her mother tells her essentially to shut up invalidating the efforts that the child is making to get help. The mother was right at one level as the threat of imminent arrival by the police may have caused the assailant to be even more violent. But the desperation in the child’s voice is one of those moments that stick with you.

In the world of child protection, we must recall that we tend to see only the more significant cases or the ones where the child has either managed the courage to disclose or, more often, does so accidentally. In reality, a disclosure will rarely be evidence that a single event of domestic violence occurred. The child has likely witnessed far more.

Hamby’s research goes further. It tells us that we must let go of the notion that domestic violence is a curse of the lower incomes and rooted in poverty. Her research found that 28% occurred in households with annual incomes under $20,000; 30% in households earning $20,000-50,000; 18% in the $50,000-75,000 bracket and 24% with incomes about $75,000. Domestic violence is an equal opportunity curse it would seem.

In my own work, I have seen frightened children scared to tell what goes on in their households. Worse, however, are the children who feel that there is nothing to report because it is so normal. Either way, when child protection becomes involved, we must remember that involving the criminal justice system is important as a way to hold the assailant accountable. But that does not make the journey better.

The victims – the other caregiver or parent and the children all need to learn how to create a new normal over time that includes health, safety, and respect along with a different set of problem solving skills. Just getting the assailant out of the house does not make it better. Supports are needed long term – remember that most women need between 8-12 times before they will leave a domestically violent relationship for good. Imagine the impact on the children.

Forensic Social Work and Its Importance in the 21st Century

In reflecting on how my career has formulated, particularly in the fields of criminal justice, human services and social work, I often wondered where I fit in; particularly when discussing traditional social work models, practices and approaches.  I knew I always wanted to work in the criminal justice environment, not necessarily as a sworn law enforcement official, but in a capacity that addressed the needs of delinquents, adult offenders and prisoners.  This venue, during the early to mid-20th century, unfortunately wasn’t always readily available to social workers, let alone forensic social workers.

Clinical work, specifically, was geared towards counselors and psychologists in criminal justice settings.  The role of the social worker, if any, represented that of a case manager at best.  Further, when attempting to market or explain what a forensic social worker was, the responses in most instances were either of confusion or an unawareness that the practice existed.

What is Forensic Social Work

llustration: John Michael Yanson
llustration: John Michael Yanson

Ironically, social work has a long standing history of practice in the justice sector, as well as the other more noted, child welfare and social services roles.  According to the National Organization of Forensic Social Work website (,

” Forensic social work is the application of social work to questions and issues relating to law and legal systems. This specialty of our profession goes far beyond clinics and psychiatric hospitals for criminal defendants being evaluated and treated on issues of competency and responsibility. A broader definition includes social work practice which in any way is related to legal issues and litigation, both criminal and civil. Child custody issues, involving separation, divorce, neglect, termination of parental rights, the implications of child and spouse abuse, juvenile and adult justice services, corrections, and mandated treatment all fall under this definition” (NOFSW website).

As one can gauge, forensic social work has long been a practice in various traditional social work capacities.  Though early in application, forensic social work was commonly associated with the legal field (Barker & Brannon, Forensic Social Work Legal Aspects of Professional Practice, 2000); it now encompasses a much broader representation in the criminal justice system and ancillary justice related services.

Forensic Social Work Today

Forensic Social Work in the 21st century continues to be a critical component of not only traditional social work and criminal justice systems, but it has expanded to cover more globally related human rights and social justice concerns.  As various academic institutions are now incorporating forensic social work courses into their respective curriculums, BSW and MSW students are becoming more aware and interested in pursuing this specialization.  Dr. Yolanda M. Byrd, LCSW, Director of Field Education at Winston-Salem State University stated “she has seen a continued interest from her BSW students in forensic social work; particularly in obtaining field education placements.”

As the latter part of the 20th century dealt with establishing the practice of Forensic Social Work, the 21st century will reflect more of a presence in various venues encompassing micro and macro approaches to the field, not only within the United States but more globally.  In speaking with the National Organization of Forensic Social Work President, Dr. Tina Maschi, LCSW, Associate Professor of Social Work, Fordham University, she noted  “in the 21st century the complex social issues, such as mass incarceration, necessitate that we use an integrated approach that incorporates clinical, policy, and community organizational skills to build the capacities of individuals, families, and communities to address them.”

Forensic Social Work in the Future

Looking ahead, you will see more forensic social workers represented in all aspects of society representing not only clients in criminal justice practice settings, but as administrators, social activists, academicians, and social justice change agents internationally.  As social work curriculums, both undergraduate and graduate, continue to broaden their course offerings and specializations to include forensic social work, you will see a continued increase in diplomas, degrees and certifications being obtained by future social work students.  Here in North Carolina, the need to have forensic social workers represented in the criminal justice system, specifically the penal system is a growing need and viable area of interest for local and state legislators.  For those interested, I strongly encourage you to attend the NOFSW annual conference in July.

Photo Credit via NASW

Ban the Box: A Second Chance for People with Criminal Convictions

People with a criminal conviction know the drill when it comes to employment. When filling out a job application, there is that question again: Have YOU Ever Been Convicted of a Crime? What do you do? Check it and you will never hear back from the employer, or leave it blank in hopes no one will find out. If you are one of the 92 million Americans with an arrest or criminal record, you run the risk of losing that job down the line when a background check is conducted.

All of Us or None
All of Us or None

The Ban the Box movement, started in California in 2004 by our friends at All of Us or None, seeks to address this issue by banning the criminal history question on job applications. Now over 45 cities and counties across the country and a handful of states ban the box on their employment applications. SCSJ has contributed to successful Ban the Box campaigns throughout North Carolina in both Durham County and the City of Durham, Cumberland County, Carrboro, and the Town of Spring Lake.

We are actively working on initiatives in other counties such as Nash, Edgecombe, Scotland, Hoke, Robeson, Richmond, and Wilson.  Also, we created the  Ban the Box initiative guide  as a tool communities can use to start a Ban the Box movement in their communities.

The latest development in the movement seeks to ban the box on the applications of private employers. For example, Minnesota is one of the latest states to do so, with a “private employer ban the box” law that went into effect January 1st. Kevin Lindsey, Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights, said “This is a significant piece of legislation. This law will offer the vast majority of individuals with a non-violent criminal record a second chance in gaining employment opportunities that will help better their lives.” Some private employers, such as Target, have taken the initiative themselves to remove the box on their applications. Additionally, Target is Banning the Box in all of its stores throughout the U.S.

All of Us or None is now spearheading a Fair Chance Pledge that asks nonprofits and social justice organizations to commit to hiring people with past convictions. Here at SCSJ, we have two staff members who were formerly incarcerated.

We want to hear from you! We would like to hear stories of people who have benefited from the Ban the Box movement and from nonprofits who have hired people with a criminal record. Write to us at and we will share you success stories with the wider community!

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