Social Work with Criminals

social work

social work, organized effort to help individuals and families to adjust themselves to the community, as well as to adapt the community to the needs of such persons and families.

Modern Social Work

Modern social work employs three methods of assistance: case work, group work, and community organization. Case work is the method by which individual persons and families are assisted. The person in need of case work may be physically, mentally, or socially handicapped. Among those regarded as socially handicapped are: the unemployed, the homeless, members of broken families, alcoholics, drug addicts, and neglected or problem children. To determine the cause of maladjustment, the social worker must understand individual psychology as well as the sociology of the community. Physicians, psychiatrists, and other specialists may be required to help diagnose the difficulty.

Social group work is exemplified by the social settlement, the supervised playground and gymnasium, and the classroom, where handicrafts may be learned. The community may be called upon to provide the buildings and grounds for such activities; often the services of volunteers and of public groups are utilized; in recent years people living in poverty areas have been employed to work in and direct poverty projects in their own communities.

Through community organization the welfare work of single agencies as well as of whole communities is directed, cooperation between public and private agencies is secured, and funds are raised and administered. The funds required by private agencies are often pooled in a community chest, from which each agency receives a share. Community welfare councils are organized to map programs of rehabilitation, to eliminate duplication of services, and to discover and meet overlooked needs.

The Development of Social Work

Social work emerged as a profession out of the early efforts of churches and philanthropic groups to relieve the effects of poverty, to bring the comforts of religion to the poor, to promote temperance and encourage thrift, to care for children, the sick, and the aged, and to correct the delinquent. Orphanages and homes for the elderly were typical results of these activities. The word charity best describes the early activities, which were aimed at the piecemeal alleviation of particular maladjustments. In such charitable work the principal criterion in determining aid to families was worthiness, while the emphasis in later social work was on restoring individuals to normal life both for their own sake and for the sake of the community.

The first attempts to solve the problem of poverty in a modern scientific way was made by P. G. F. Le Play, who in the 1850s made a detailed study of the budgets of hundreds of French workers' families. Forty years later Charles Booth investigated wages and prices, working conditions, housing and health, standards of living, and leisure activities among the poor of London and revealed the extreme poverty of a third of the population. Booth's social survey became a method for determining the extent of social maladjustment, and through surveys in other cities in Europe and the United States a vast number of facts were accumulated, and methods were developed that provided the basis for modern social work.

In 1874 the National Conference of Charities and Correction (now called the National Conference on Social Welfare) was organized in the United States. Public relief and private philanthropic effort remained largely matters of local and state concern until after 1930, when the federal government entered the field of social work on a large scale to cope with the effects of the Great Depression. Resources were made available, the number of social workers was greatly increased, and it became necessary to coordinate public and private activities. Social work has been steadily professionalized, and special graduate schools as well as departments in universities have been established to train social workers. By 1999 there were 377 accredited undergraduate schools of social work in the United States.


See I. A. Spergel, Community Problem Solving (1969); R. E. Smith and D. Zietz, American Social Welfare Institutions (1970); W. C. Richan and A. R. Mendelsohn, Social Work (1973).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

From Misery to Mission: Forensic Social Workers on Multidisciplinary Mitigation Teams
Guin, Cecile C.; Noble, Dorinda N.; Merrill, Thomas S.
Social Work, Vol. 48, No. 3, July 2003
Handbook of Social Work Practice with Vulnerable and Resilient Populations
Alex Gitterman.
Columbia University Press, 2001 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 12 "Adult Corrections"
Lessons Learned about Working with Men: A Prison Memoir
Sternbach, Jack.
Social Work, Vol. 45, No. 5, October 2000
Reverse Social Work's Neglect of Adults Involved in the Criminal Justice System: The Intersection and an Agenda
Pettus-Davis, Carrie.
Social Work Research, Vol. 36, No. 1, March 2012
Incorporating Content on Offenders and Corrections into Social Work Curricula
Young, Diane S.; Lomonaco, Sara Wyckoff.
Journal of Social Work Education, Vol. 37, No. 3, Fall 2001
Should Convicted Felons Be Denied Admission to a Social Work Education Program? No!
Scott, Nettie; Zeiger, Spencer.
Journal of Social Work Education, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall 2000
Social Work and Juvenile Probation: Historical Tensions and Contemporary Convergences
Peters, Clark M.
Social Work, Vol. 56, No. 4, October 2011
Abolish the Juvenile Court: Youthfulness, Criminal Responsibility, and Sentencing Policy
Feld, Barry C.
Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 88, No. 1, Fall 1997
Working with Emotionally Disturbed Prisoners: Experiences in a Prison Treatment Program for Youthful Offenders
Eisenman, Russell.
Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, March 2003
Trends in Social Work, 1874-1956: A History Based on the Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work
Frank J. Bruno.
Columbia University Press, 1957
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 17 "The Juvenile Court"
Where Are All the Young Men and Women of Color?: Capacity Enhancement Practice in the Criminal Justice System
Melvin Delgado.
Columbia University Press, 2001
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