Smart Decarceration Initiative: Transforming Criminal Justice in America
The era of mass incarceration, which made the United States the world’s leading jailer, appears to be coming to an end. What is likely to follow is an era of decarceration, aimed at reducing the incarcerated population. For the country to achieve effective and sustainable decarceration—smart decarceration—the following three goals must be accomplished:
  • Substantially reduce the incarcerated population in jails and prisons.
  • Redress the existing social disparities among the incarcerated.
  • Maximize public safety and well-being.

The Smart Decarceration Initiative (SDI) aims to build societal capacity to reduce incarceration rates in ways that are effective, sustainable and socially just. We achieve this through three primary strategies. (Click on the links below for more information.)

Achieving Smart Decarceration will require major shifts in the criminal justice system. The field of Smart Decarceration is grounded in the following guiding concepts aimed at transforming the criminal justice system:

  1. Changing the narrative on incarceration and the incarcerated. A smart decarceration approach must soberly question the utility and function of incarceration and actively welcome currently and formerly incarcerated individuals as leaders in decarceration efforts.​
  2. Making criminal justice systemwide innovations. Criminal justice transformation that leads to smart decarceration will require advances in all sectors of the criminal justice system, including law enforcement, court systems, jails and prisons, and community supervision.
  3. Implementing transdisciplinary policy and practice interventions. Smart decarceration will be complex and comprehensive and will require integrating perspectives from multiple disciplines to produce substantive policy reforms and practice innovations.
  4. Employing evidence-driven strategies. A smart decarceration approach must both generate new evidence for optimal reforms and use existing evidence to guide decision-making and program development. Methods must be integrated to continuously examine and assess the effects of policy and practice interventions, thus developing further evidence from which to act.

For more information, click here to read "Guideposts for the Era of Smart Decarceration."

"Promote smart decarceration" is one of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work. Read the Grand Challenge policy action statement that that targets reversal of civic and legal exclusions for people with criminal charges and convictions.

As a follow-up to the first national conference on decarceration​, SDI is producing an edited book titled Smart Decarceration: Achieving Criminal Justice Transformation in the 21st Century,  forthcoming in September 2017 from Oxford University Press. The volume takes up the challenge of transforming America’s approach to criminal justice in a forward-thinking and solutions-focused manner—detailing evidence, conceptual frameworks, and an action plan for sustainable and effective decarceration. The primary purpose of this book is to inform both academic and public understanding, to place the challenge of smart decarceration at the center of the current national discourse, and to propose beginning action steps. 

SDI, based at the Center for Social Development, is led by Carrie Pettus-Davis, assistant professor at the Brown School of Social Work, Washington University in St. Louis, and Matt Epperson, associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. 

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