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Who Are Criminal Justice Social Workers?
Social workers serving clients in the criminal justice system, including offenders and their families, are criminal justice social workers or forensic social workers. They may work with inmates, recently released ex-offenders, or people identified for targeted secondary prevention or intervention programs such as drug court. Social workers are responsible for identifying rehabilitative services the justice system originally intended with correctional facilities, or to support family members impacted by offender actions.
Jobs within criminal justice social work include diversion program managers, probation and parole officers, Guardian Ad Litems, sex offender clinicians, mitigation or arbitration specialists, transitional case managers, and conflict mediators. A very specialized subset of criminal justice social workers are victim advocates. They work for or with local law enforcement agencies to assist victims through the legal process from the moment of reporting the crime through the trial and beyond.
You might be surprised to learn that the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) does not include juvenile justice social workers in this category. NASW advocates that children in the juvenile justice system should be treated as children, not criminals, particularly with the increasingly punitive nature of the courts. These practitioners are more aptly classified as mental health or substance abuse social workers.
How Do I Know If Criminal Justice Is Right For Me?
Do you enjoy advocacy? Impartiality and empathy are especially crucial in criminal justice social work. Removing barriers to services and promoting alternatives to incarceration are both important parts of the advocacy required of criminal justice social workers.
Can you help people whose actions disturb you? Some of the clients walking into your office have done very unlikable things. You would need to take a strengths-based approach and to advocate for what is in your client’s best interest, putting aside any bias you may have because of the client’s actions. Forensic social workers embrace shades of grey in ways other branches of social work do not require.
How well do you handle ethical dilemmas? MSWs who work in criminal justice are often caught between what’s best for the justice system and what’s best for the offender. You may also find dilemmas while assisting offenders’ families, particularly if issues of abuse, neglect or other “duty-to-report” issues arise in the course of a confidential partnership.
What Are The Requirements?
A Master’s Degree in Social Work is often required to practice in this field. However, in some cases a Bachelor’s in Social Work will qualify under the supervision of a social worker with more credentials. Currently, there is no specific licensure for criminal justice social workers, however NASW is advocating for its development. Many criminal justice social workers overlap with treating mental health or substance abuse clients and as such may be Licensed Clinical Social Workers or Licensed Clinical Addictions Specialists. Some MSW programs offer graduate certificates for those who specialize in this subfield.
How Much Do Criminal Justice Social Workers Make?
In 2010, NASW estimated that forensic social workers made a median salary of $56,300. More recently, that number has risen to an average annual salary of $81,389 according to ZipRecruiter (https://www.ziprecruiter.com/Salaries/Forensic-Social-Worker-Salary). In 2018, there were over 7 million Americans incarcerated, on probation or on parole. Since the population of prisoners and ex-offenders continues to rise, the demand for more forensic social workers continues to grow, as well. Currently, criminal justice social workers are one of the smallest social work subcategories, making up only seven percent of MSWs nationwide.
A Day in the Life of a Criminal Justice Social Worker
Most criminal behavior stems from unmet social, emotional, financial, psychiatric, or developmental needs. You will likely conduct psychosocial assessments to identify the underlying issues that brought a client to your office and work with them to find the resources necessary to meet those needs. A criminal justice social worker works with their clients to resolve those issues through coping skills training, life skills development, case management, and home visits.
You may also be charged with working with people impacted by a person’s incarceration. This can include assessing for abuse and neglect, coordinating out-of-home placement and representing displaced children in court or coordinating adoption of inmates’ children by other family members. Additionally, you might help connect clients who used to depend on the now-incarcerated person’s income with financial and basic needs resources.
The criminal justice social worker’s daily tasks vary depending on where within the system you’re assigned. If you work in a court diversion program such as Drug Court, you would likely participate on an interdisciplinary team that includes judges, attorneys, court advocates, probation and parole officers, and other helping professionals. If you work in a correctional facility, you might run psycho-educational groups that help inmates prepare for life after release by focusing on developing anger management or coping skills group, job preparedness, and handling addictions. It is also possible you might find yourself serving as an expert witness in court or standing before a judge to advocate on your client’s behalf. One of the most rewarding parts of forensic social work is being a champion for members of society who have long since been forgotten, abandoned, or dismissed.