Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Encyclopedia of Social Work. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 25 April 2024

Criminal Justice: Overviewfree

Criminal Justice: Overviewfree

  • Michael C. GearhartMichael C. GearhartUniversity of Missouri– Saint Louis


The American criminal justice system is comprised of four main components: law enforcement, the judiciary, corrections, and legislature. These components work together to investigate crimes, arrest individuals, weigh evidence of guilt, monitor individuals who are found guilty, and make laws. Though the criminal justice system is meant to administer justice in an equitable manner, a number of controversial policies and practices exist within the criminal justice system. These practices are typically rooted in historical biases that continue to create disparities today. Social work has a long history of reforming the criminal justice system. However, modern disparities illustrate that there is still work to be done. The skills of macro social workers are foundational to present-day advocacy efforts and emerging criminal justice practice, highlighting the enduring significance of macro social work practice in criminal justice reform.


  • Criminal Justice
  • Ethics and Values
  • Macro Practice
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture
  • Social Justice and Human Rights
  • Social Work Profession

Updated in this version

Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.

The criminal justice system traces its roots to the Sumerian Code and the Code of Hammurabi (Allen et al., 2013). When the American colonies formed, they transported many criminal laws and practices from England. This article begins with a brief overview of four key components of the criminal justice system. The second section describes how individuals progress through the criminal justice system from arrest to release.

The next three sections focus on the oppression in the criminal justice system as it pertains to three groups: racial and ethnic minorities (with an emphasis on Black people); the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community; and a brief section on intersectional identities. The goal of these sections is to highlight oppressive practices in the criminal justice system. However, there are multiple groups oppressed by the criminal justice system, including women, the elderly, and individuals with mental health issues (Berger & Losier, 2018).

The article concludes by describing the role that macro social work had in shaping the criminal justice system in the past, and highlights the need for macro social work in the ongoing process of reforming the criminal justice system.

Components of the Criminal Justice System

Traditionally, the criminal justice system has been envisioned as consisting of three components: law enforcement, judiciary, and corrections. Though not an explicit component of the criminal justice system, the legislative branch of government has a strong influence on the criminal justice system due to its ability to create laws and shape criminal justice policy.

Law Enforcement

Law enforcement officers are defined as “individuals who ordinarily carry a firearm and a badge, have full arrest powers, and are paid from governmental funds set aside specifically for sworn law enforcement representatives” (Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], 2019). The primary goal of law enforcement officers is to protect and serve the community by upholding the law and investigating crimes. Most citizens’ contact with law enforcement is through interactions with police officers, but deputies, state troopers, border patrol, and federal agents are all considered law enforcement officers. In 2018 there were 686,665 law enforcement officers in the United States (FBI, 2019).


The judiciary revolves around the trial process, which generally involves the judge, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and juries. The judiciary tries individuals accused of breaking the law to determine whether there is enough evidence to convict someone of a crime. In 2018 there were 44.4 million new court cases for traffic violations, 17 million new criminal cases, and 1.2 million new juvenile cases in state trial courts (Court Statistics Project, 2020).

Judges can determine if court cases go to trial, hear cases, and sentence individuals. State and federal judges also interpret laws, which can determine their constitutionality and how they are applied. Prosecutors serve as lawyers for the state during criminal proceedings. Their roles include making the case that there is enough evidence for a case to go to trial, determining the charges that an individual can be tried for, and arguing that the defendant is guilty of a particular crime. Defense attorneys are the legal representation for the defendant and make the case for their innocence. As will be described later, the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney play a role in jury selection. Juries can also determine if court cases go to trial, hear the arguments of the prosecution and defense, and determine if there is enough evidence to convict the defendant of a crime.


Corrections consists of multiple individuals and institutions, including prisons, jails, parole, and probation. Prisons are long-term confinement facilities that typically hold individuals serving sentences of more than one year. Jails are local institutions that hold adults, or in some cases juveniles, before trial and detain individuals for sentences of one year or less. Individuals on parole are released into the community following a prison term and are under the supervision of a state or federal correctional agency. Probation is community supervision that is administered by local agencies, typically in lieu of incarceration in jail. An estimated 6,410,000 individuals were under the supervision of the correctional system in 2018 (Maruschak & Minton, 2020). Of those people in the correctional system, 1,465,200 were in prison, 738,400 were in local jails, and 3,540,000 and 878,000 were supervised under probation and parole, respectively. The total number of people under the supervision of the correctional system decreased 12.3% between 2008 and 2018.

State Legislatures and Congress

Legislative bodies are often overlooked as part of the criminal justice system. However, they have a significant impact on the criminal justice system in many ways. First, state and federal legislatures make laws, effectively determining what constitutes criminal conduct. They also influence the budgets of law enforcement agencies and determine funding priorities for the state and country. The legislature also affects standards of officer conduct and department practices and influences department transparency through data collection and reporting. For example, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 seeks to incentivize departments to ban the use of chokeholds, increase certification requirements for hiring new officers, and create a national police misconduct registry (Bass, 2020).

Criminal Justice Process

Though there are multiple ways an individual can progress through the criminal justice system, this section describes the general process (Siegel, 2018). Typically, an individual’s first point of contact with the criminal justice system is the police. Police officers have the opportunity to arrest an individual if there is enough evidence to suggest that the suspected individual committed a crime. However, police can also conduct an investigation and arrest an individual at a later date. After an arrest, the individual remains in police custody where officers can fingerprint, photograph, and record the individual’s personal information. At this point, officers also have the ability to interrogate suspected individuals, solicit confessions, and bring in witnesses to view suspects in a lineup.

Once evidence has been collected, police turn the evidence over to a prosecutor. The prosecutor has wide latitude in determining if an individual will be charged with a crime, as well as the number and severity of charges. Charges are determined by the level of the offense. Misdemeanors are less serious crimes, whereas felonies are more serious crimes.

If the prosecutor believes that there is enough evidence to go to trial, a pretrial is held to determine if the case will go to trial. Some states utilize a grand jury made up of citizens who hear the prosecutor’s arguments. Other states hold a preliminary hearing where a judge determines whether the case should move forward in the trial process. If the court decides to try the case, an arraignment hearing is held where formal charges are read and defendants are informed of their constitutional rights.

The conditions of bail are also determined during the arraignment process. Bail is a money bond that an individual may pay in order to await trial in the community instead of in county jail. If an individual fails to show up to court they forfeit their bail and a warrant may be placed for their arrest. The court may also deny bail to individuals who are flight risks or who have committed severe crimes.

Typically, prosecutors will discuss a plea bargain with defendants and their legal representation. In exchange for pleading guilty, a prosecutor may reduce the charges or request a more lenient sentence. If a plea bargain cannot be reached, the case moves to the trial phase.

The trial phase begins with jury selection. Though many criminal cases have juries of 12 individuals, the number may be smaller for misdemeanors (American Bar Association, 2019). Typically, potential jurors are brought to the courtroom, where the judge describes the case and asks if there is any reason why possible jurors may be biased in the case. An individual can be dismissed from the jury “for cause” if the prosecutor or defense attorney can make a case that the individual may be biased in the trial (e.g., they are a coworker of the defendant). Though there is no limit to the number of dismissals that can be made for cause, the judge determines whether the dismissal is allowed. Lawyers also have the ability to dismiss a potential juror without stating a particular cause through the use of peremptory challenges. Peremptory challenges cannot be used to discriminate based on race or sex, and the number of challenges are typically limited based on the type of trial.

Once the jury has been decided, the case moves to the trial phase. During the trial, an individual can be found guilty or not guilty, or the jury can be undecided (i.e., hung jury). In the case of a hung jury, the case is left unresolved but open for a possible retrial. If an individual is found guilty or pleads guilty, they are sentenced for the crime. Depending on the severity of the offense, an individual is typically sentenced to community supervision (i.e., probation), jail, prison, or a diversion program for treatment in lieu of incarceration.

Individuals who are incarcerated in jail or prison may be released under community supervision (i.e., probation or parole) to serve out the remainder of their term. Community supervision typically has conditions that individuals must meet. Conditions typically include regular meetings with parole or probation officers, being subjected to drug tests, and attending rehabilitative treatment, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Racial and Ethnic Oppression

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and America more broadly, are rooted in the institution of slavery. Though the Founding Fathers debated the legality of slavery during the Constitutional Convention, they ultimately decided that the institution was legal when the constitution was ratified (Barnett & Blackman, 2020). Therefore, criminal justice policy, as well as all social policy in the United States, was based on the foundation that Black people were property, creating an uphill struggle for the recognition of the rights of Black people in the criminal justice system.

Law Enforcement

Many modern police tactics evolved from slave patrols, which was the South’s law enforcement model in the 18th and 19th centuries (Reichel, 1988). The purpose of slave patrols was to catch slaves who were off the plantation without authorization from the master. Though the authority vested in slave patrols varied across states, slave patrols could administer punishments ranging from returning slaves to the plantation to performing executions. One of the factors that influenced the development of modern police forces was, “a need to control ‘dangerous classes’” (Lundman, 1980, p. 24). Former slaves were considered a dangerous class, justifying the use of police officers to legally enforce segregation and discrimination, most notably through the Jim Crow laws.

Much of the public discussion around racism and law enforcement focuses on highly visible instances of police brutality, such as the murder of George Floyd in 2020. However, the most common interaction between police and citizens is traffic stops. Pierson and colleagues (2020) compiled a data set through a public records request that included information on 60 million police stops in 20 states between 2011 and 2015. Their findings indicate that, relative to their share of the driving age population, Black drivers are stopped more frequently than White drivers, whereas Hispanic drivers are stopped less often than White drivers. Black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be ticketed, searched, and arrested than White drivers. Officers search White drivers in 2% of stops compared to 3.5% for Black drivers and 3.8% for Hispanic drivers. The authors acknowledge that, while a variety of factors can shape these findings (including driving behaviors, search policies within and across jurisdictions and methodological limitations), their results provide support for bias in search decisions.

Racial disparities persist in law enforcement through policies that appear to be race neutral but are applied selectively (Hadden, 2003). For example, stop and frisk policies do not explicitly mention race, but a district court ruled that the New York Police Department’s application of stop and frisk singled out Black and Hispanic people in Floyd v. the City of New York (2013). Further, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) report on the Ferguson Police Department highlighted that the wide latitude given to officers and a lack of meaningful oversight contributed to discrimination on the basis of race (DOJ, 2015). Five years after the DOJ report, the Ethical Society of Police (ESOP), a union of 325 current and former law enforcement officers, was still identifying and fighting against racial disparities in policing in St. Louis (ESOP, 2020).


Once arrested, Black people are more likely to be sentenced in court and are more likely to receive longer jail and prison terms (Alexander, 2010). This outcome is the product of multiple factors within the trial process, including judges, lawyers, and juries. Historically, the rights of Black people were not recognized in courts because, as infamously ruled by the Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1856), Black people were considered property. These issues were perpetuated with the enactment of Black Codes, which prohibited Black people from serving on juries during the Reconstruction Era.

Black individuals are still tried by juries that are predominantly White. Initially, this was because lawyers were allowed to use peremptory challenges to remove jurors on the basis of race, a practice declared unconstitutional in Batson v. Kentucky (1986). Today, it is difficult to enforce the decision in Batson because the burden of proof is high (DeCamp & DeCamp, 2020). Further, lawyers developed race-neutral justifications to dismiss potential jurors that are rooted in other racist policies. For example, an individual may be dismissed from a jury because they live close to the defendant, an outcome that is influenced by redlining and segregation.

The disproportionate use of peremptory challenges against Black jurors is still an issue. Notably, in his opinion on Miller-El v. Dretke (2005), Justice Stephen Breyer indicated that prosecutors are given jury selection manuals that encourage the evaluation of jurors on the basis of race. The rationale behind these instructions is the belief that Black jurors are less likely to convict a Black defendant. However, research suggests that more diverse juries result in less racially biased decisions (DeCamp & DeCamp, 2020).


Correctional institutions are considered to be the new Jim Crow today (Alexander, 2010). However, prisons became the new plantation first. Though chattel slavery was abolished with the 13th Amendment, prison slavery was still a legal practice. Laws in the Reconstruction Era overtly targeted Black communities, all but ensuring that the majority of prison slave labor would be performed by Black people (Berger & Losier, 2018).

Just as slavery evolved into sharecropping, prison slavery evolved into a form of prison sharecropping. One of the most widely publicized examples is California’s use of incarcerated individuals for fighting fires (Escalante, 2019). Despite receiving the same training and performing similar tasks as seasonal firefighters in California, firefighters drawn from California’s prisons earn $2.90 to $5.12 per day. Considering that these individuals are charged various fees related to their incarceration, it is nearly impossible for them to pay off debts or save money. California recently passed legislation making it easier for prison firefighters to earn a job after release (Mossburg & Almasy, 2020), but there is still no justification for their lack of pay while incarcerated.

Today, Black people are still overrepresented in correctional facilities even though White people have been shown to commit the most violent crimes and use the most drugs. They are also more likely to be arrested for possessing weapons (Alexander, 2010). While the number of people under the supervision of correctional institutions has been steadily decreasing, and the imprisonment rate of Black individuals decreased 28% between 2008 and 2018, the imprisonment rate of Black males was still 5.8 times greater than that of White males in 2018 (Carson, 2020).


As the beginning of this section suggests, the relationship between legislatures and racial oppression in the United States began with the institution of slavery. Further, it is important to remember that any laws that contribute to racial oppression, such as those designating former slaves as a “dangerous class” or the legalization of prison slavery, were designed and passed by state and federal legislatures (Lundman, 1980).

The government’s reaction to drug use is a contemporary example of how legislatures create racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The traditional example has been a sentencing disparity for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. Due to its lower cost, crack cocaine was perceived as more commonly used within Black communities, whereas powder cocaine was more common among Whites. Prior to the Fair Sentencing Act (Lee, 2010), 5g of crack cocaine warranted a 5-year sentence, compared to 500g of powder cocaine, a 100-to-1 disparity.

However, the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine was a microcosm of broader, systemic issues. Over the span of decades, America fought a war on drugs that were perceived to be more common in Black communities, passing laws that focused on harsh penalties, increasing budgets for prosecuting drug-related crimes, and creating the prison industrial complex and decimating communities of color (Mauer, 2006). The war on drugs stands in stark contrast to America’s approach to opiate use in predominantly White communities, which focuses on decriminalization, regulation of pharmaceutical companies, and rehabilitation (Netherland & Hansen, 2017).

State and federal legislatures have also passed or maintained “race-neutral laws” that have a disproportionate impact on non-White individuals involved with the criminal justice system. The practice of disenfranchising individuals with a felony conviction exploded in the 1860s and 1870s after the passing of the 15th Amendment, which extended voting rights to Black Americans (Behrens et al., 2006). In the 2016 presidential election, 1 in 13 Black individuals of voting age were disenfranchised compared to 1 in 56 for non-Black populations (Uggen et al., 2016). Of the 6.1 million voters disenfranchised due to felony convictions, 77% lived in the Black community.

Oppression of the LGBTQ Community

The oppression of LGBTQ individuals in the criminal justice system is primarily rooted in societal labels suggesting that members of the LGBTQ community are sexual deviants and criminals (Woods, 2014). Thus, multiple aspects of the criminal justice system evolved to enforce heteronormative behavior, which is steeped in heterosexuality and the nuclear family and considers the dichotomization of gender as “natural” (Mogul et al., 2011).

Law Enforcement

Early accounts of settlers and missionaries in the United States include multiple derogatory references to Native American “men” who assumed the appearance and performed the functions of “women,” including sexual conduct with individuals of the “same” sex (Mogul et al., 2011). These behaviors were policed by “Indian Agents” who sought to enforce heteronormative behavior.

As we will see later in the section, such laws have evolved over time giving police authority to continue policing the LGBTQ community for nonheteronormative behaviors. The most visible examples of policing sexuality are police raids on LGBTQ-serving businesses, such as the Stonewall Inn and Compton’s Cafeteria (Dwyer & Tomsen, 2016). Though these raids are less common today, the discrimination against the LGBTQ community by police officers is still a significant issue (Mallory et al., 2015).

LGBTQ people are also at a higher risk of being victimized by law enforcement officers. A national survey of 2,376 LGBTQ people and people living with HIV found that 21% of the sample reported experiencing hostile attitudes from the police, 48% of LGBTQ violence survivors experienced police misconduct, 57% reported unjustified arrest, and 28% reported excessive use of force (Mallory et al., 2015). The National Transgender Victimization Survey and National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) show that LGBTQ people are harassed by police officers at higher rates than non-LGBTQ people (NCAVP, 2017).

Similar to policing communities of color, the oppression of the LGBTQ community by police is perpetuated by laws that are applied unequally. The infamous raid on the Stonewall Inn was conducted to enforce liquor laws, which are still a commonly cited justification for raiding LGBTQ establishments (Mogul et al., 2011). Further, members of the LGBTQ community are more likely to be arrested for public order offenses, such as lewd conduct (Ball, 2020).


Disparities within the judiciary are rooted in negative stereotypes that portray members of the LGBTQ community as criminal, deceptive, and predatory (Mogul et al., 2011). In 1986, Bowers v. Hardwick ruled that same-sex couples did not have a right to have consensual sex within their homes. Justice Burger stated in his consenting opinion that “homosexual sodomy” was a “crime against nature” (Mogul et al., 2011). Though this decision would be overturned in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), Justice Burger’s opinion illustrates that judges can reinforce the oppression of LGBTQ individuals by falsely labeling them as inherently immoral.

LGBTQ individuals report difficulty in finding adequate legal representation, and lawyers sometimes capitalize on the negative perceptions of LGBTQ individuals in to undermine the credibility of LGBTQ people—most notably transgender individuals. For example, a New Jersey court ruled in 1989 that a transgender woman was unable to change her name, indicating that it was “inherently fraudulent for a person who is physically a male to assume an obviously ‘female’ name” (p. 73). Lawyers utilize court precedents such as this to undermine transgender individuals suggesting that being transgender is a form of deception (Mogul et al., 2011).

The negative perceptions of the LGBTQ community can influence jurors’ perceptions of LGBTQ individuals, whether they are defendants or witnesses in trials (Mogul et al., 2011). Juries are prone to biased decision-making based on stereotypes because they are typically made up of predominantly heterosexual, gender-conforming individuals. This is also one reason LGBTQ individuals may be more likely to report experiencing discriminatory actions in the courtroom, including the use of derogatory terms and jokes pertaining to sexuality.


Members of the LGBTQ community face multiple challenges as it relates to corrections. In general, LGBTQ individuals receive more scrutiny, security, punishment, and isolation compared to their straight, cisgender peers. Historically, as with many correctional institutions today, individuals were housed based on the sex that they were assigned at birth (Brown & Jenness, 2020). In the 1970s, many correctional institutions responded to transgender individuals by labeling them mentally ill and housing them in hospital wards (Mogul et al., 2011).

Though gender-nonconforming individuals are no longer framed as mentally ill, they are victimized by correctional institutions’ attempts to adequately house them. Because LGBTQ individuals are more likely to experience sexual violence while incarcerated, correctional institutions will typically place them in higher security sections of prisons regardless of the individual’s security risk. This decision can place an LGBTQ individual at greater risk for abuse as in the case of Crowder v. Diaz (2019), and can create significant barriers to accessing rehabilitative treatment, work release programs, and religious services (Mogul et al., 2011).

LGBTQ individuals are also more likely to be scrutinized and punished during their incarceration. For example, gay and lesbian inmates are more likely to be punished for embracing someone of the same sex, including fellow inmates and visitors, though no such rules exist for heterosexual inmates (Mogul et al., 2011). Correctional institutions also typically fail to recognize transgender individuals’ chosen names and preferred pronouns, deprive transgender inmates of bras despite medical necessity, and deny access to hormonal treatment or provide hormonal treatment sporadically.

Individuals who are or are perceived to be LGBTQ are at an increased likelihood of being sexually assaulted by fellow inmates (Simpson et al., 2016). In addition, LGBTQ individuals can also be harshly victimized by correctional officers. For example, in 2009, prison staff at Fluvanna Women’s Correctional Center in Virginia identified women they believed to be gay using physical markers such as loose-fitting clothes or short haircuts. Staff then placed these individuals in a unit derogatorily named the “butch wing” where correctional officers verbally ridiculed individuals.


There have been multiple laws enacted to enforce heteronormative behaviors throughout the history of the United States. The most significant of these were labeled “Sodomy Laws,” which primarily targeted same-sex couples (Dalton, 2016). However, the impact of the legal system extends beyond the act of sex. Sumptuary laws required individuals to wear at least three articles of clothing associated with the gender a person was assigned at birth (Mogul et al., 2011).

Disparities in the legislature can also be attributed to the American Psychological Association’s classification of homosexuality as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. As a result, legislatures created “sexual psychopath laws” that targeted LGBTQ individuals and labeled them as sexual deviants (Woods, 2018).

States have repealed overtly discriminatory laws like sumptuary laws, and homosexuality is no longer classified as a mental illness. However, LGBTQ individuals are at an increased risk of contact with the criminal justice system due to unequal protections as it relates to employment, housing, health care, and education (Woods, 2018). These disparities place LGBTQ individuals at greater risk for unemployment, homelessness, and turning to crime as a means of survival (Mogul et al., 2011).


This article would be lacking if it did not highlight disparities based on intersectional identities. The war on drugs had a significant negative impact on Black men. However, Black and Latina women bore the brunt of the criminalization of drugs because they are disproportionately arrested, charged, and convicted for drug offenses and have seen a rapid increase in terms of incarceration rates. Further, women of color are more likely to be victimized by prison staff once incarcerated compared to White women (Mogul et al., 2011).

As discussed previously, transgender individuals are more likely to be perceived as sex workers compared to gender-conforming peers. However, Black and Latinx transgender individuals are more likely to be stopped and arrested by police offices (Mogul et al., 2011). Further, Black LGBTQ survivors of violence are more likely to experience excessive force by police (NCAVP, 2017).

While LGBTQ individuals are overrepresented in correctional institutions, roughly 50% of Black transgender people are incarcerated at some point in their life (Grant et al., 2011). Further, transgender women are more likely to be victims of sexual violence in prison (Lydon et al., 2015), and racial and ethnic minority LGBTQ people are more likely to be victims of a crimes based on sexual identity or orientation (NCAVP, 2017).

In short, disparities are greater when accounting for the intersection of multiple identities. These disparities underscore the importance of intersectional work by understanding interactions between race, gender, and LGBTQ status in terms of how these interactions shape disparities as well as interventions (Peterson & Panfil, 2014).

Social Work and the Criminal Justice System

The oppressive roots and present-day disparities of the criminal justice system notwithstanding, the system has improved over the course of its 300-year history. Though oppressive practices persist through the biased application of criminal justice policies, the 14th Amendment protects people from overt discrimination on the basis of race (Barnett & Blackman, 2020). Prosecutors appear to be more equitable on the basis of race when using their discretion to charge individuals (Robertson et al., 2019). Sodomy laws were declared unconstitutional in 2003 (Mogul et al., 2011), organizations such as the LGBTQ Bar Association work to improve the legal representation of LGBTQ individuals, and correctional institutions are developing approaches to ethically house LGBTQ individuals (Brown & Jenness, 2020).

Macro social work has a long history of working both with and against the criminal justice system to bring about these changes. For the purpose of this section, I consider “macro social workers” to be individuals who are explicitly trained in macro social work, as well as individuals who may not be credentialed social workers but utilize the skills taught in macro social work curricula. This decision was made to recognize the value of noncredentialed individuals in creating social change.

History of Social Work and the Criminal Justice System

In Chicago in the late 19th century, social workers from Hull-House provided educational services to youth in detention centers. These settlement house workers envisioned a system just for juveniles and collaborated with the Chicago Bar Association and the Illinois Conference of Charities and Corrections to successfully lobby the Illinois legislature to create the first juvenile court in 1899 (Alexander, 1997). In the 1920s, settlement house workers from Cleveland, Ohio, advocated for women who were incarcerated at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, as did other social workers who were actively involved with discharge planning for adult offenders (Alexander et al., 1993).

LGBTQ civil rights organizations like Chicago’s Society for Human Rights, the Mattachine Society, and Daughters of Bilitis launched multiple campaigns parallel to the Civil Rights Movement to advocate for and change societal perceptions of LGBTQ individuals (D’Emilio, 1998). These activists collaborated with researchers to debunk homosexuality as a mental illness (Bayer, 1981). Community organizations such as these were instrumental in making progress toward equal rights for LGBTQ individuals within the criminal justice system by successfully working to repeal sodomy laws, reform correctional institutions, and influence legislation that designates crimes against LGBTQ individuals as hate crimes.

In the 1960s, community groups like the Black Panther Party fought oppression in the criminal justice system by calling for an end to the unfair imprisonment of Black people (Bloom & Martin, 2016). They also created multiple programs aimed at protecting the Black community from the negative effects of the criminal justice system. For example, the Free Busing to Prison Program simultaneously helped keep Black families connected during incarceration and raised awareness of the disproportionate impact of incarceration on Black people.

Black Panther self-defense groups relied on the second Amendment to arm Black communities as a means of protection from police brutality (Bloom & Martin, 2016). Organized groups of LGBTQ individuals fought against police harassment in the wake of raids against LGBTQ-serving institutions such as the Stonewall Inn and Compton’s Cafeteria (Dwyer & Tomsen, 2016).

Pioneers, including Harvey Milk, Louis Stokes, and Shirley Chisholm, established a foothold in politics for LGBTQ individuals and Black men and women. Revisionist history has minimized the role of intersectional change agents such as Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker. However, scholarship is constantly evolving as it relates to organizing around intersectional identities and attributing credit to historically underrepresented groups (Carruthers, 2018).

While it is important to recognize the progress that has been made, we cannot romanticize our present (Dwyer & Tomsen, 2016). Perceptions of the police are still a significant barrier to treatment for LGBTQ individuals due to a fear of abuse and retraumatization by police officers (Stotzer, 2014). Further, LGBTQ individuals experience disparate treatment by the police, in the courts, while incarcerated, and in legislation.

In 2020, the White House issued a memo and accompanying executive order attacking training that discusses racism and sexism in America. This decision was made in the wake of the widely publicized killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, and Linden Cameron. Unfortunately, I am morbidly confident that future revisions of this article will have new names to add to the list of handcuffed, sleeping, unarmed, Black adults and children (some of whom have mental health issues) that have been killed by the police. Therefore, macro social work’s legacy of affecting the criminal justice system must continue.

Looking Ahead

In academia, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare has declared smart decarceration as one of the field’s grand challenges (Uehara et al., 2013). The Smart Decarceration workgroup has produced a number of products including policy recommendations for criminal justice reform, studied the impact of policies and practices on incarceration, and shaped social work curriculum (Coyle, 2020).

Within criminology, a growing body of research and theory has focused on queering criminology, which seeks to identify and address disparate treatment of LGBTQ individuals as both victims and offenders by the criminal justice system (Buist & Lenning, 2016). Research in this domain has both raised awareness in terms of the challenges that LGBTQ individuals face in the criminal justice system and resulted in changes to criminal justice policies and practices that affect the LGBTQ community.

The need for macro social work can also be seen in strategies aimed at improving the criminal justice system. For example, multiple models of policing have been developed to improve officers’ relationships with their communities including community-oriented policing, procedural justice, and restorative justice. Though these approaches vary, they all recognize the community as a key partner in crime prevention (Rosenblat, 2015). Therefore, community engagement and community input are the crux of these strategies.

Social workers also recognize the importance of civic engagement and criminal justice reform—particularly voting. A key reason that groups have historically fought for suffrage and continue to fight against the disenfranchisement of voters is that voting can have an impact on the government (Carruthers, 2018). In terms of the criminal justice system, voting can affect key positions in the judiciary, state and federal legislature, and, in some cases, police chiefs.

However, voting alone is not enough to transform systems. Since 2016, America has seen an increase of protests, many of which target the criminal justice system (Fisher et al., 2019). Core values and skills of macro social workers, including advocacy, engagement, and organizing, can be seen in each of these protests whether they occur in the workplace such as the social justice advocacy work of NFL and NBA players, or the streets, like those conducted by groups like Black Lives Matter and Black Youth Project 100.

The movement to defund the police calls into question the root causes of crime, the role of police officers, and the funding priorities of cities. America has built the criminal justice system on the belief that the root cause of crime is lack of monitoring and a lack of harsh punishments. Advocates for defunding the police frame the root cause of crime in social issues like homelessness, poverty, and unemployment (Ray, 2020). Though responding to crime is an important role in society, police cannot respond to all of the issues that contribute to crime. Therefore, proponents of defunding the police believe that more funding should go to social services in the community.

Criminal justice reform also relies on interdisciplinary work. For example, St. Louis, Missouri, was home to a medium security prison known as the Workhouse. The Workhouse has been the center of multiple issues, including overcrowding, abuse, and human rights violations (Lippman, 2017). The Workhouse closed after two years of advocacy in the courts, in the streets, and in the civic arena. Though Action St. Louis, ArchCity Defenders, and the Bail Project-St. Louis were instrumental in these efforts, so were the countless volunteers and donors who assisted in the movement (Close the Workhouse, 2020). Macro social workers are well-suited for working with a variety of community partners to create social change.


It is important for macro social workers to understand how the criminal justice system operates in order to reform it. Studying the history of the criminal justice system identifies how the methods that discriminate against marginalized groups have evolved over time. Examinations of the criminal justice system demonstrate that the system has improved over time, and that macro social workers have played a role in these changes.

However, disparities observed in the criminal justice system today highlight that there is work that still needs to be done. Injustices such as the cash bail system (Onyekwere, 2021), the death penalty, the school-to-prison pipeline, and law enforcement officers’ use of deadly force have yet to be addressed. The skills of macro social workers can be seen in the advocacy efforts, protests, criminal justice reforms, and civil unrest of 2020, which highlight the continued significance of macro social work in criminal justice reform.


I am thankful for Dr. Matthew Ball for his review and comments on this article.

I am also thankful for Emily Gearhart for copyediting this article.

Further Reading

  • Chesney-Lind, M., & Mauer, M. (Eds.). (2003). Invisible punishment: The collateral consequences of mass imprisonment. New Press.
  • Clear, T. R. (2009). Imprisoning communities: How mass incarceration makes disadvantaged neighborhoods worse. Oxford University Press.
  • Maruna, S. (2011). Escape routes: Contemporary perspectives on life after punishment. Taylor & Francis.
  • Rothstein, R. (2017). The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. Liveright.


  • Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New Press.
  • Alexander, R., Jr. (1997). Juvenile delinquency and social work practice. In C. A. McNeece & A. Roberts (Eds.), Social work policy and practices in the justice system (pp. 181–197). Nelson–Hall.
  • Alexander, R., Jr., Butler, L., & Sias, P. (1993). Woman offenders incarcerated at the Ohio penitentiary for men and the Ohio reformatory for women from 1913–1923. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 20(3), 61–79.
  • Allen, H. E., Latessa, E. J., & Ponder, B. S. (2013). Corrections in America: An introduction. Prentice Hall.
  • American Bar Association. (2019). How courts work.
  • Ball, M. (2020). Queering criminology globally. In E. Erez & P. Ibarra (Eds.), Oxford research encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice (pp. 1–28). Oxford University Press.
  • Barnett, R. E., & Blackman, J. (2020). An introduction to constitutional law: 100 Supreme Court cases everyone should know. Wolters Kluwer.
  • Bass, K. (2020). H.R.7120: George Floyd justice in policing act of 2020. 116th Congress.
  • Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S. Ct. 1712. (1986).
  • Bayer, R. (1981). Homosexuality and American psychiatry: The politics of diagnosis. Basic Books.
  • Behrens, A., Uggen, C., Manza, J., & Apuzzo, M. (2006, November 15). Federal judge decries disparity in cocaine sentencing. Columbus Dispatch, A7.
  • Berger, D., & Losier, T. (2018). Rethinking the American prison movement. Routledge.
  • Bloom, J., & Martin, W. E. (2016). Black against empire: The history and politics of the Black Panther Party. University of California Press.
  • Brown, J., & Jenness, V. (2020). LGBT people in prison: Management strategies, human rights violations and political mobilization. In E. Erez & P. Ibarra (Eds.), Oxford research encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice (pp. 1–25). Oxford University Press.
  • Buist, C., & Lenning, E. (2016). Queer criminology. Routledge.
  • Carruthers, C. A. (2018). Unapologetic: A black, queer and feminist mandate for radical movements. Beacon Press.
  • Carson, E. A. (2020). Prisoners in 2018 (NCJ 253516). US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Department of Justice Statistics.
  • Close the Workhouse. (2020). The campaign to close the workhouse.
  • Court Statistics Project. (2020). State court caseload digest 2018 data. National Center for State Courts.
  • Coyle, S. (2020). The grand challenges for social work: An update. Social Work Today, 19(5), 16.
  • Crowder v. Diaz, No. 2:17-CV-1657-TLN-DMC (E.D. Cal. Aug. 16, 2019).
  • Dalton, D. (2016). Reflections on the emergence, efficacy, and value of queer criminology. In A. Dwyer, M. Ball, & T. Crofts (Eds.), Queering criminology (pp. 15–35). Palgrave Macmillan.
  • DeCamp, W., & DeCamp, E. (2020). It’s still about race: Peremptory challenge use on Black prospective jurors. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 57(1), 3–30.
  • D’Emilio, J. (1998). Sexual politics, sexual communities: The making of a homosexual minority in the United States, 1940–1970 (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press.
  • Department of Justice. (2015). Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division.
  • Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393. (1856).
  • Dwyer, A., & Tomsen, S. (2016). The past is the past? The impossibility of erasure of historical LGBTIQ policing. In A. Dwyer, M. Ball, & T. Crofts (Eds.), Queering criminology (pp. 36–53). Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Escalante, E. (2019, October 29). California’s inmate firefighters: 9 things to know. abc10.
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2019). Crime in the United States 2018.
  • Fisher, D. R., Andrews, K. T., Caren, N., Chenoweth, E., Heaney, M. T., Leung, T., Perkins, L. N., & Pressman, J. (2019). The science of contemporary street protest: New efforts in the United States. Science Advances, 5(10), 1–15.
  • Floyd v. City of N.Y., 959 F. Supp. 2d 540 (S.D.N.Y.). (2013).
  • Grant, J. M., Mottet, L. A., Tanis, J., Harrison, J., Herman, J. L., & Keisling, M. (2011). Injustice at every turn: A report of the national transgender discrimination survey. National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
  • Hadden, S. (2003). Slave patrols: Law and violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Harvard University Press.
  • Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 123 S. Ct. 2472. (2003).
  • Lundman, R. J. (1980). Police and policing: An introduction. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  • Lydon, J., Carrington, K., Low, H., Miller, R., & Yazdy, M. (2015). Coming out of concrete closets: A report on Black Pink’s National LGBTQ Prisoner Survey. Black & Pink.
  • Mallory, C., Hasenbush, A., & Sears, B. (2015). Discrimination and harassment by law enforcement officers in the LGBT community. Williams Institute.
  • Maruschak, L. M., & Minton, T. D. (2020). Correctional populations in the United States, 2017–2018. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • Mauer, M. (2006). Race to incarcerate. New Press.
  • Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231, 125 S. Ct. 2317, 162 L. Ed. 2d 196. (2005).
  • Mogul, J. L., Ritchie, A. J., & Whitlock, K. (2011). Queer (in)justice: The criminalization of LGBT people in the United States. Beacon Press.
  • National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. (2017). Hate violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and HIV-affected communities in the United States in 2016. National Advocacy for Local LGBTQ Communities.
  • Netherland, J., & Hansen, H. (2017). White opioids: Pharmaceutical race and the war on drugs that wasn’t. Biosocieties, 12(2), 217–238.
  • Onyekwere, A. (2021). How cash bail works. Brennan Center for Justice.
  • Peterson, D., & Panfil, V. R. (Eds.). (2014). Handbook of LGBT communities, crime, and justice. Springer New York.
  • Pierson, E., Simoiu, C., Overgoor, J., Corbett-Davies, S., Ramachandran, V., Phillips, C., & Goel, S. (2020). A large-scale analysis of racial disparities in police stops across the United States. Nature Human Behavior, 47(7), 1–20.
  • Ray, R. (2020, June 19). What does “defund the police” mean and does it have merit? Brookings Institution.
  • Reichel, P. L. (1988). Southern slave patrols as a transitional police type. American Journal of Police, 1(7), 51–77.
  • Robertson, C., Baughman, S. B., & Wright, M. S. (2019). Race and class: A randomized experiment with prosecutors. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 16(4), 807–847.
  • Rosenblat, F. F. (2015). The role of community in restorative justice. Routledge.
  • Siegel, L. J. (2018). Criminology: The core. Cengage.
  • Simpson, P., Reekei, J., Butler, T., Richters, J., Yap, L., & Donovan, B. (2016). Sexual coercion in men’s prisons. In A. Dwyer, M. Ball, & T. Crofts (Eds.), Queering criminology (pp. 204–228). Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Stotzer, R. L. (2014). Bias crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity: Global prevalence, impacts and causes. In D. Peterson & V. R. Panfil (Eds.), Handbook of LGBT communities, crime, and justice (pp. 45–64). Springer.
  • Uehara, E., Flynn, M., Fong, R., Brekke, J., Barth, R. P., Coulton, C., Davis, K., DiNitto, D., Hawkins, J. D., Lubben, J., Manderscheid, R., Padilla, Y., Sherraden, M., & Walters, K. (2013). Grand challenges for social work. Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, 4(3), 165–170.
  • Uggen, C., Larson, R., & Shannon, S. (2016). 6 million lost voters: State-level estimates of felony disenfranchisement, 2016. Sentencing Project.
  • Woods, J. B. (2014). “Queering criminology”: Overview of the state of the field. In D. Peterson & V. Panfil (Eds.), The handbook of LGBT communities, crime, and justice (pp. 15–41). Springer.
  • Woods, J. B. (2018). LGBTQ in the courtroom. Criminal Juries in the 21st Century: Psychological Science and the Law, 61.