Editor’s note: Knowledge Applied is a new podcast from the University of Chicago News Office. Each of its five episodes will take listeners inside the research of UChicago scholars helping reshape everyday life while tackling some of the biggest questions facing cities today.
Matt Epperson, associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration, has seen the failures of mass incarceration first hand. For more than two decades, Epperson worked with incarcerated individuals as a social worker, including six years in a county jail in Michigan.
Epperson calls the revolving door of mass incarceration returning individuals to jail “the definition of insanity,” especially for individuals suffering from mental illness and drug addiction who failed to receive the help they truly needed.
“The vast majority of folks I worked with in the jail needed something else than incarceration,” Epperson said.
Epperson, along with a colleague from Washington University in St. Louis, leads the Smart Decarceration Initiative, a program utilizing the field of social work to apply policy and behavioral interventions to sustainably reduce the incarcerated population by nearly half.
On the inaugural episode of Knowledge Applied, Epperson discusses the history of mass incarceration, the challenges facing Smart Decarceration, and the social and political changes that have occurred over the last decade that may make this the ideal time to begin shrinking the U.S. prison population.