CSD spotlight: The Smart Decarceration Initiative
8/14/2015

The United States faces the tremendous challenge of reducing its overreliance on prisons and jails. As the social and economic costs of incarceration rise, great need—and opportunity—exists to reverse the trend. The new Smart Decarceration Initiative (SDI), based at the Center for Social Development, is taking up the challenge.

Carrie Pettus-Davis, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, and Matthew Epperson, PhD, assistant professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, are leading SDI. They say “smart” decarceration will result in three key outcomes:

  • The population in U.S. jails and prisons is substantially lessened;
  • existing racial and economic disparities among the incarcerated are redressed, and;
  • public safety and public health are maximized.

“Incarceration in and of itself should be used sparingly because the consequences of incarceration last for a lifetime, and they ripple out to people in the community—innocent people and children,” says Pettus-Davis,  also the founding director of the Brown School’s Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice. “Shorter sentences do not address that. It just has people in prison for shorter amounts of time, but it doesn’t address the ripple effects and the consequences of incarceration.”

On September 24-26, the Center for Social Development (CSD) will host the inaugural SDI conference “From Mass Incarceration to Effective and Sustainable Decarceration” at the Brown School’s Hillman Hall. The conference will bring together top thinkers in policy, practice and research to present their work and to help set an agenda for moving decarceration forward.

The initiative promotes work across disciplines that reconsiders the function of incarceration, supports innovations across sectors of the criminal justice system, and develops, rigorously evaluates and applies emerging evidence to policy and practice in real-world settings.

“Mass incarceration has resulted in extraordinarily high rates of imprisonment in the United States, especially among some of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups,” says CSD Director Michael Sherraden, PhD. “These two scholars are taking on an issue that many people would rather ignore, and their collaborative work will have a strong impact on moving decarceration forward.”

Millions of Americans behind bars

On any given day, more than 2.3 million Americans, nearly one in 100, are incarcerated in a prison or jail, according to the Concordance Institute. Although the United States makes up only 5 percent of the world’s population, one in 4 of the world’s prisoners is in an American prison or jail. 

More than 2.7 million children, or 1 in 28, have a parent in prison, and children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, poor academic performance, and the list goes on.

The U.S. has spent so much in the past 40 years on long sentences and harsh punishments, Pettus-Davis says, and so little on creating an evidence base for what would prevent people from being locked up or what would keep people from returning to prisons and jails after they are released.

At the Brown School, she focuses her research on decarceration through policy reform and behavioral intervention development, and she is particularly interested in the ways in which policies can be transformed to reduce racial and economic disparities within the criminal justice system. She concentrates her behavioral intervention research on working with community partners to develop and test interventions to enhance positive social support, reduce substance abuse, and respond to trauma experiences among justice-involved adults.

Epperson’s research centers on developing, implementing and evaluating interventions to reduce disparities in the criminal justice system, with a particular focus on people with mental illnesses.  “An estimated 1 million adults with serious mental illnesses are involved in the criminal justice system,” he points out.

He is principal investigator of a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, which entails developing and testing a novel intervention focused on criminal risk reduction and treatment adherence among probationers with serious mental illnesses. In addition to having conducted numerous formative, process and outcome evaluations of criminal justice interventions, Epperson’s interests also include developing conceptual, evidence-based frameworks for effective and sustainable decarceration.

‘Eye-opening experience’

Academia is Epperson’s second career. In the mid-1990s, he was a social worker for a community mental health organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His work was in crisis intervention, and his workplace was the Kent County Jail.

"It was a very eye-opening experience,” he says. “I was really struck by how many people were coming in who had mental health diagnoses,” many with such major illnesses as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression.

“My immediate response was: ‘This is wrong. Something needs to change,’” he says. Eventually he started a diversion program to work with district and circuit court judges to steer people toward treatment, instead of incarceration, if they were a low risk to public safety.

After six years, Epperson took on a new role as a mental health administrator in North Carolina. Then he pursued his doctorate. 

“I started to delve into the literature and the research,” he says. “What I’d experienced in Grand Rapids was happening all over the country.” 

He says he began to wonder, “How can we develop more effective interventions to help people move away from the criminal justice system, or avoid it entirely”

Epperson and Pettus-Davis met at a conference when they both were doctoral students, and they started a dialogue that eventually led to the creation of SDI.“This is our first formal collaboration, but it was years in the making,” Epperson says. He’d worked on the front end of the criminal justice system (jails, courts), and she’d worked on the back end (prison, ex-prisoners’ reentry into society). “But we were both seeing the same kinds of problems,” Epperson says.

“There’s no setting in the nation that’s more socially unjust than the criminal justice system,” he adds.

 “We were both drawn to this work from different perspectives.”

 ‘Something is very wrong’

Pettus-Davis first became interested in the criminal justice system when she was in high school. In a behavioral sciences class, she and the other students watched grainy video from the Stanford Prison Experiment. The experiment, conducted at Stanford University for six days in August 1971, was to study the psychological effects of becoming a prison guard or a prisoner. The subjects, who were college students, were divided randomly into prisoners or guards.

Within about a day, the guards began humiliating and psychologically abusing the prisoners, who under guards’ orders harassed those who tried to prevent it. The experiment, a simulation planned to last two weeks, was halted after six days.

Pettus-Davis, who is from Fayetteville, Arkansas, recalls thinking, “Something is very wrong with this system we have in place if this study could take college students and result in … them treating people horribly.”

When she went to college, she pursued volunteering opportunities, internships and work that had some type of interaction with people entering and exiting the criminal justice system.

“Over time, my commitment became both an extreme sense of wanting to promote social justice but then also recognition that very, very few people who were in prison were people that should never be released,” Pettus-Davis says.

“I saw the consequences of prison on individuals, their children, their families and their communities. And so I have just never been able to ‘unknow’ that,” she says.  “And my passion to change that for individuals in the country is what brings me to work every day.”