Risks and Mitigating Factors in Decisions to Accept Students with Criminal Records

By Brodersen, Miriam; Swick, Danielle et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
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Risks and Mitigating Factors in Decisions to Accept Students with Criminal Records


Brodersen, Miriam, Swick, Danielle, Richman, Jack, Journal of Social Work Education


ADMISSIONS COMMITTEES for schools of social work play an important role as gatekeepers for the profession. This role requires the screening out of unsuitable candidates while recognizing the potential loss to the profession caused by unfairly judging an applicant (Cole, 1991). Perhaps because of the importance of this role, social work educators have some difficulty with this task (Born & Carroll, 1988; Cole, 1991; Miller & Koerin, 1998). One study found that the responsibility of the gatekeeping role made many social work faculty uncomfortable (Miller & Koerin, 1998).

Evaluating applicants with criminal records may be one of the toughest of these gatekeeping decisions. Despite the apparent importance of this issue, it has received scant attention in the social work literature. Extensive literature searches produced only two articles: one that presented two points of view on whether applicants with criminal records should be allowed in schools of social work (Magen & Emerman, 2000; Scott & Zeiger, 2000) and one that presented a theoretical guide to evaluating such applicants (Leedy & Smith, 2005). Arguing that schools of social work should bar all applicants with criminal records from admission, Magen and Emerman (2000) posited that the possibility of reoffense by the student poses too great a risk to clients and would amount to a breach of the ethical obligation to protect the safety of clients. In their counterargument, Scott and Zeiger (2000) argued that automatically disqualifying these applicants contradicts core social work values by failing to consider the individual circumstances of each case and by denying the possibility of rehabilitation. They also point to the potential benefits of admitting an applicant who has made mistakes and learned from them. The power in both arguments points to the complexities of this type of decision, which involves weighing the potential risks and benefits to individual applicants, their clients, and the profession as a whole.

Addressing the issue of how to evaluate applicants with criminal records, Leedy and Smith (2005) proposed a theoretical model to guide social work educators in making these particularly difficult admissions decisions. Their model, which incorporates the principles of signal detection theory, intuitive decision-making models, and recidivism research, offers social work educators the only guidelines to date for evaluating applicants with criminal records. This model provides a framework for decision making that examines both the risks and benefits of accepting an applicant. It suggests the use of findings from risk assessment research to help admissions committees determine risk. It also suggests that the potential benefits of admitting an applicant should be assessed by examining not only the applicant's experience and skills but also his or her potential contribution to the diversity of the school and the profession as a whole.

Both of the aforementioned articles discuss this issue from a theoretical basis. Noticeably absent from the literature is any discussion about the practical concerns associated with these admissions decisions. In the process of writing an admissions policy for our school, the same questions repeatedly emerged: First, how do we determine whether the applicant presents a risk and whether our determination is biased? Second, if we decide to accept an applicant, will we be able to find a field placement that will accept him or her?

In conducting initial research, we repeatedly heard these same questions asked by social work educators, licensing boards, and agencies. For example, in an informal survey we sent out to the National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work, we found that each of the nine schools who responded employed a case-by-case policy. Many of these policies essentially stated that the decision would be based on factors such as the nature of the crime and the length of time since the offense, with no clear explanation about how the decision would be determined.

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