Social Work and Corrections: Let's Step Up to the Plate

Article excerpt

Editor's Note: The following abridged article is reprinted with permission from the fall 1995 issue of Boston University School of Social Work's Alumni Journal.

"By the year 2000, half the people in the United States will be supervising the other half," said colleague Leslie Wilkins in 1975 when he was a professor at the State University of New York.

Twenty years ago most of the criminal justice professionals were skeptical of this tongue-in-cheek remark from a well-respected criminal justice writer. Could it really happen? It was indeed a warning of what was to come.

Here it is [1996] - just [four] years away from the new century - and although we know that statement of 20 years ago is not true, many Americans perceive it to be true. Let's consider these terrifying statistics:

* The nation's correctional population more than doubled from 1980 to 1993.

* During 1993, approximately 2.6 percent of the U.S. population - 4.9 million adults - were on parole, probation, or in jails or prisons, an increase of three million people since 1980. More than 909,000 men and women were in the custody of state and federal prisons, 455,500 were in local jails, 671,000 were on parole, and 2.9 million were on probation.

* From 1980 to 1992, the percentage of black state and federal prisoners increased from 46.5 percent to 50 percent while the percentage of blacks in the general population increased from 11.8 percent to 12.4 percent. The Hispanic prison population doubled from 7.7 percent to 14.1 percent, while Hispanics in the general population increased from 6.5 percent to 9.5 percent.

* By the end of 1992, there were 4,094 black male inmates per 100,000 black adults in the U.S. population, compared to 502 white male inmates per 100,000 white adults.

* Violent offenders were more likely to be sent to prison in 1992 than they were in 1980. Relative to the number of victims of murder, rape, robbery or aggravated assault, the number of violent offenders admitted to state prison increased during the 12-year period, from 18 admissions per 1,000 violent victimizations to 27 per 1,000.

A New "Welfare State"

Because of the shifting demographics, corrections has become a major new "welfare state" in and by itself, and it is time that social workers began to pay attention. Welfare comes in many different forms. Corrections does not give cash payments, but it does provide room, board, clothing, limited education, work and a lot of time to think about one's lifestyle.

Prisons and jails were invented years ago to keep the mean, the vicious and, yes, the poor away from public sight. Although much of this population remains the same, others - such as the sick, the mentally ill, people with disabilities and the elderly - have been added.

Correctional institutions are costly. Yearly costs per inmate range from $7,000 to a high of $35,000 or so. Billions of dollars are being spent on an institution as old as civilization. Although new community sanctions have been instituted, prison sentences still are imposed on more than 30 percent of those who are convicted.

This percentage may seem small, but the absolute number of more than one million persons in prisons and jails is mind-boggling. If current increases continue, America will have more than two million prisoners by the year 2000. It is an overwhelming prediction that demands a major new public policy thrust - perhaps even a new vision. …