With an era of decarceration of America’s penal system quickly approaching, a Washington University in St. Louis expert and co-editor of a new book offers concrete strategies for ushering in a metamorphosis of the criminal justice system.
“The United States out-incarcerates every other developed nation in the world by a rate of several hundred per 100,000 people,” said Carrie Pettus-Davis, assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, director of the Institute for Advancing Justice Research and Innovation. She and Matthew Epperson, associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, combined to publish “Smart Decarceration: Achieving Criminal Justice Transformation in the 21st Century,” available in August through Oxford University Press.
Pettus-Davis and Epperson are co-directors of the Smart Decarceration Initiative (SDI), based at the Brown School’s Center for Social Development. SDI’s applied research focuses on front-end criminal justice innovations.
In the book, they show how decreasing the incarcerated population is not only possible, but also potentially beneficial.
“Our approach to smart decarceration is more than simply not using the blunt instrument of incarceration; it’s developing more thoughtful, responsive and evidence-driven approaches to replace incarceration whenever possible,” Epperson said.
“Overincarceration has ripped apart families, devastated the viability of numerous communities and overall hurt the progress and well-being of our country,” Pettus-Davis said. “Because of a perfect storm of moral, fiscal and political will, an exponentially growing number of residents stand ready to reverse America’s overreliance on incarceration to respond to social problems.”
She and Epperson felt it was important to articulate guiding concepts and strategies for achieving decarceration in a way that is “effective, sustainable and socially just,” she said.
“We knew there were many experts from advocacy, practitioner, formerly incarcerated, policymaking and research communities, and we wanted their collective voices to contribute to a framework upon which smart decarceration approaches could be built.”
Pettus-Davis said she hopes readers realize that for transformation to occur, community leaders and the public will need to engage in challenging and critical dialogue that reimagines a U.S. criminal justice system earmarking human dignity and the overall well-being of all.
“We also hope that readers see the power in research-practice-policy partnerships to positively and effectively impact social justice and change,” she said.
The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration, spending $52 billion a year on correctional supervision and another $948 billion in related social costs.
“If the country does not unite now to take advantage of the momentum for evidence-driven and thoughtful reforms, we may not get this opportunity again,” Pettus-Davis said. “Reversing the damage of decades of hyperincarceration is one of the most pressing social issues of our time.”
The book is a product of the 2015 conference “From Mass Incarceration to Effective and Sustainable Decarceration,” hosted by the Center for Social Development.
“Promote smart decarceration” is one of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work, and the Smart Decarceration Initiative is leading the national challenge.