Smart Decarceration

Social Justice

A prolonged era of mass incarceration has resulted in extraordinary rates of imprisonment in the United States, particularly among some of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups. Due to rising social and economic costs of incarceration, along with tight public budgets, there is great need, and opportunity, to reverse this dreadful trend. The United States at the beginning of the 21st century finds itself facing the enormous challenge of decarceration, or reducing its overreliance on incarceration. Seldom before in the nation’s history has the need for applied social innovation been more urgent.

The Smart Decarceration Initiative aims to stimulate applied policy and behavioral intervention research that will reduce the incarcerated population in ways that are humane, socially just, and sustainable. Effective decarceration will be occurring when:

  1. The incarcerated population in U.S. jails and prisons is substantially lessened;
  2. Existing racial and economic disparities among the incarcerated are redressed; and
  3. Public safety and public health are maximized.

In order to progress toward these goals, the Smart Decarceration Initiative promotes transdisciplinary work that:

  • Reconsiders the utility and function of incarceration
  • Supports innovations across sectors of the criminal justice system, including law enforcement, courts, jails, prisons, and community supervision
  • Rigorously evaluates and applies emerging evidence to policy and practice in real time

This work provided a foundation for the Grand Challenges for Social Work‘s “Promote Smart Decarceration.” Over 100 social work scholars and practitioners have joined together to identify, develop, and implement actionable steps to promote smart decarceration in three primary areas of social work: 1-Research; 2-Practice; and 3-Education.

Principal Investigator


Carrie Pettus

Carrie Pettus

CSD Faculty Director; Justice System Partners
Smart Decarceration: Reversing Mass Imprisonment in America