SSA conference to examine national movement to reduce incarceration rates

A growing movement to find alternatives to mass incarceration will be the focus of a Nov. 2-4 conference for researchers, policymakers, formerly incarcerated leaders and practitioners at the School of Social Service Administration.

The event, “Tools and Tactics: Promising Solutions to Advance the Era of Smart Decarceration,” is being organized by Matthew Epperson, associate professor at the School of Social Service Administration, and co-founder and co-director of the Smart Decarceration Initiative.

“Our goal is to promote the integration of research, practice in policy in order to develop strategies that will advance an era of decarceration,” Epperson said. The Smart Decarceration Initiative is intended to find ways to reduce incarceration rates in ways that are effective, sustainable and socially just, he explained.

Epperson is implementing research projects related to decarceration and has done extensive work on addressing behavioral health disparities in the criminal justice system. He is co-editor of the recently published book, Smart Decarceration: Achieving Criminal Justice Transformation in the 21st Century. His co-editor is Carrie Pettus-Davis, co-founder and co-director of the Smart Decarceration Initiative and assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.

The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare recognized the importance of decarceration when it selected the project “Promote Smart Decarceration” in 2016 as one of the 12 grand challenges for social work during the next decade.

Tough policies on crime, particularly the war on drugs during the 1980s, led to an increase of people incarcerated in jail or prison from 100 per 100,000 in 1975 to 700 per 100,000 of the nation’s population in 2000. Incarceration disproportionately affects poor people and African-Americans, Epperson said. African-Americans, who make up 13 percent of the nation’s population, comprise 40 percent of the prison population, and research has shown that this is largely due to unequal treatment in the criminal justice system.

The conference will open with “A Conversation with Susan Burton,” featuring the formerly incarcerated founder and executive director of A New Way of Life, a national organization that helps former prisoners. She will engage in conversation with Reuben Miller, assistant professor at the School of Social Service Administration, at 6 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 2 in the SSA lobby.

Other keynote speakers include Shaun King, prominent activist and writer; Karol Mason, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former U.S. assistant attorney general; Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project; and Ronald Sullivan, professor and director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the Harvard Law School.

Panel topics will center on decarceration-focused policy innovations, violence and criminal justice reform in Chicago, behavioral health inequities in the criminal justice system and organization for decarceration. These discussions will feature experts and policymakers such as Kim Foxx, Cook County state’s attorney; Toni Preckwinkle; Cook County Board president; Daniel Cooper, executive director of the Center for Equitable Cities at Adler University; Curtis Toler, a community change leader from Chicago CRED; and Gina Fedock, assistant professor at the School of Social Service Administration.

Seats are still available for the Susan Burton and Shaun King events, which are free and open to the public. The remainder of the conference is now at capacity and registration is closed.