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August 2020 Educator | Resource of the Month

The Center for Diversity and Social & Economic Justice Educator|Resource is a monthly feature that highlights curricular resources and social work educators who address diversity and justice.

Social Work in the (In)Justice System

Recent incidents of racist police brutality have highlighted the need for social work to examine its relationship with the larger criminal (in)justice system. Social work scholars in the field of criminal justice from the Jane Addams College of Social Work, Henrika McCoy, Branden McLeod, and Aaron Gottlieb, and social work practitioner Melissa Mahabir discuss how they engage social work students in a critical approach to practice in this system. 

We highlight work that identifies fundamental problems with the adult and juvenile systems and how these systems have been used as tools to control people of color, especially in Black communities. We also address the longstanding debate that has currently surfaced regarding whether we need to reform or dismantle our broken justice system.

We operate from the perspective that the entirety of the criminal justice system—from prevention to reentry—is broken. We start with entry into the system and an overview of prevention efforts, followed by conditions of confinement, unduly long-term sentencing, and finally consider reentry—which signals the continuation of a self-perpetuating cycle. Works on gender-responsive approaches to the different needs of men/boys and women/girls are included.


Teaching Resources

The resources include recommended books, articles, reports, films, podcasts, and websites. Links have been provided where available. To provide further insight into how to structure a class, links to syllabi that critically consider these systems of (in)justice are included. The syllabus by Educator|Resource contributor Dr. Aaron Gottlieb for his course Policy Approaches to Reforming the Adult Criminal Justice System is also included. The resources are organized as they apply to the adult criminal justice system, women in the criminal justice system, and the juvenile justice system.

Q&A: Educator Pedagogical Approach

Share with us what brought you to this work.
Dr. Branden McLeod: Multiple experiences, both personal and professional in nature, brought me to work on criminal (in)justice-related issues.… Incongruent personal experiences with incessant police-driven murders of Black people continue to ignite my perspective related to Black community mistrust in law enforcement. Read full Q&A.


About the Educators

Henrika McCoy.jpg

Henrika McCoy, PhD, MJ, MSW, is an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work. Her research focuses on the intersection between mental health needs and juvenile offending behavior among African American boys and the violent victimization experiences of young Black men. Dr. McCoy’s work has been supported by the National Institute of Justice, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Branden A. McLeod, PhD, MSW, is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work. Dr. McLeod’s research examines the intersection of fatherhood and the involvement of the criminal (in)justice system. His research unpacks how this system potentially attenuates the role of fathers and the factors that mitigate, sustain, and strengthen paternal involvement and family well-being.

Melissa Mahabir, MSW, LMSW, is a social worker with expertise in domestic violence, trauma, and sentencing mitigation. She has worked for many years with criminalized survivors at STEPS to End Family Violence and the Legal Aid Society in New York, is a board member of Reentry Rocks (a nonprofit reentry organization for women), and is currently helping to lead implementation of the New York Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (a newly passed law that offers domestic violence survivors more sentencing discretion and currently incarcerated survivors an opportunity for resentencing).

Aaron Gottlieb, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work. Dr. Gottlieb’s research examines policy approaches for reducing incarceration and racial disparities in incarceration. He teaches courses in criminal justice policy and is actively working toward increasing police accountability through community oversight. He was recently appointed to Chicago’s Police Use of Force Work Group, a collaborative project of community members, the mayor’s office, and the Chicago Police Department.

The views expressed in the Educator|Resource are those of the educator(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council on Social Work Education.

 Interested in contributing to the Educator | Resource of the Month? Please contact Dr. Yolanda Padilla, CSWE Diversity Center Director, at [email protected].