Social Work Practice in the Criminal Justice System

Editor’s Note: Dr. Patterson was asked to write a piece for our blog as a social work educator in NYC.  You can read his piece on Police Social Work from the July 2008 issue of Currents, by clicking here or you can access the full newsletter by clicking here.

I was inspired to write the book Social Work Practice in the Criminal Justice System because I felt a need for a comprehensive textbook that could be used by social workers and other criminal justice practitioners that was broad in scope. I wrote the book to address issues such as reentry, evidence-based practice and other practice issues with individuals throughout the entire criminal justice – from law enforcement contact through post-release supervision. My intent was to provide a greater understanding of the issues social workers face when they practice in the criminal justice system.

As a police social worker I would have preferred to have written the book exclusively on this area of practice, but police social work is such a small area of social work practice that a book exclusively in this area probably would not have a market. Social workers are perhaps employed in the greatest numbers in correctional, courts, law enforcement and legislation in that order.

Other practitioners across these four subsystems include legislators, law enforcement officers, attorneys and judges, correctional officers, and probation and parole officers, among others.

In the book I define practice very defined broadly at micro, meso and macro levels, and include advocacy, clinical services, research and policy roles. I also indicate that these roles are not exclusive to the social work profession.

Consequently, many practitioners who are not social workers also provide services in criminal justice settings and in non-criminal justice settings to individuals with criminal justice involvement.

The U.S. criminal justice system is a complex system in which three components are usually described (law enforcement, courts and corrections). A fourth component, legislation, is not always mentioned. Furthermore these components are found at tribal, local, state and federal levels. Social workers practice in each of these components and at all levels. Each component and level of the system presents unique challenges as well as rewards for social work practice. For example, these challenges might include working in a paramilitary environment, ethical dilemmas associated with confidentiality and individuals’ right to self determination, and acquiring the necessary skills to communicate with courts, police officers and other criminal justice practitioners using an approach that is often unfamiliar to the social work profession.

Rewards may include helping individuals with criminal justice system involvement to access much needed services and resources, or advocating for legislative reform to using a social justice perspective.

George T. Patterson, LCSW-R, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.  He can be reached via email at:, or via commenting below.  

For more information about his book, please visit the following link:

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1 Response to Social Work Practice in the Criminal Justice System

  1. A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment. I believe that you should write more on this subject matter, it might not be a taboo matter
    but usually people do not speak about such topics. To the next!
    All the best!!

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