Social work is a special profession characterized by an explicit focus on, and long-standing commitment to, combating social exclusion; advancing social justice; and working to build a society that truly works for everyone—irrespective of race, gender, class, age, ability and so forth. With that being said, social work institutions serve a critical gate-keeping function; they are the first line of defense for ensuring that students who are deemed ‘unfit’ to practice do not enter the profession. Year after year, master of social work (MSW) programs receive applications from formerly, and sometimes currently, justice-involved adults who are admirably seeking to use their experiences to help transform the lives of others. Social workers are entrusted with caring for some of our nation’s most vulnerable populations, and as a result, MSW applicants must be subjected to rigorous vetting—a critical moral imperative on the part of social work institutions that is for all intents and purposes beyond dispute. However, MSW admissions procedures for justice-involved applicants have been historically opaque (Curran, Mayers, DiMarcantonio, & Fulgham, 2019)—leaving many of us to wonder if this population is receiving a fair, unbiased, and objective assessment. This raises questions as to whether social work institutions are inappropriately barring the very individuals who we preach about in the lecture halls as deserving of an opportunity to fully reintegrate back into society. Ultimately, this lack of transparency creates a fertile breeding ground for discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping—to which social work admissions officers are certainly not immune.
A recent large-scale study examined how U.S.-based MSW programs evaluate applicants with arrest histories and found that 58% of programs inquire about prior criminal convictions and of these, 78% reported that no training or guidelines are provided to admissions officers when evaluating this population (Curren et al., 2019). Furthermore, two social work programs reported that they automatically deny admission to anyone with a criminal conviction regardless of the nature/seriousness of the offense, the length of time since the crime was committed, and the circumstances surrounding the offense (Curran et al., 2019). One can reasonably assume that this number is actually higher considering that out of the 250 accredited schools of social work that were invited to participate, only 58.4% completed the research survey. This naturally raises two very important questions: would these results look different if there was a higher participation rate? and why did these programs choose not to participate? Whilst rejecting to participate is fully in the right of all potential research subjects, it may actually signify a calculated attempt to conceal discriminatory admissions practices.
It is not new news that our criminal legal system disproportionately targets and terrorizes communities of color; further exacerbating inequalities in wealth, income, and opportunities—a gap that social work institutions are supposedly interested in narrowing. The fact that Black Americans make up only 13% of the U.S. general population but account for 40% of the nation’s incarcerated population (Prison Policy Initiative, 2014) is no accident, and one cannot possibly discuss in any honest way the subject of criminal justice without talking about race and racism. Our criminal legal system has fueled a deeply entrenched racialized and classed “us” versus “them” mentality in which “us” refers to the middle-to-upper class White community and “them” refers to economically disadvantaged Black and Brown folks—a belief system that has transcended across time and stubbornly refuses to die. It is the bare, cold, ugly truth which led the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)—our field’s largest professional organization—to declare criminal legal reform as a top social justice priority. Given what we know about the severity and pervasiveness of anti-black racism, it is troubling to imagine a group of predominantly White, upper-middle class, cis-gender/heterosexual male faculty members sitting in a room with the authority to decide the fate of numerous justice-involved applicants—who are predominately Black and Brown folks—without any specialized training, guidelines, or standardized criteria to aid them.
Racism and colorism permeate every facet of the American criminal justice system; from the first police contact, to arrest decisions, and the type of sentence determined by the judge such as prison, probation or a fine. This works to disenfranchise people of color, strip them of their rights, and perpetuate the cycle of poverty and marginalization. For example, research demonstrates that Black Americans do not use or sell drugs at higher rates than their White counterparts; yet, they’re 270% more likely to be arrested on drug-related charges, and 650% more likely to face imprisonment for drug-related offenses (The Hamilton Project, 2016). Furthermore, a large-scale (n=48,368) study published by Carlos Berdejó in 2018 which examined racial disparities in plea-bargaining, found that White defendants with no prior conviction history were granted charge reductions in 63.91% of cases, a rate significantly higher than Black defendants who only received charge reductions in 50.66% of cases.
Evidence has shown that even social work faculty, who lecture to their students day in and day out about the importance of achieving social justice and fulfilling egalitarian ideals, are not immune to perpetuating the very “isms” they purport to be interested in dismantling. Randy Magen, the current director at Boise State University’s school of social work and Janet Emerman, a retired social work professor from the University of Alaska Anchorage argued in their article “Should Convicted Felons be Denied Admission to a Social Work Education Program? Yes!” (2000) that any individual with a felony conviction should be permanently barred from entering our profession. It is truly embarrassing that individuals who harbor such blatantly discriminatory sentiments have been able to rise to such prominent positions of authority within our field. MSW admissions procedures for evaluating justice-involved applicants has been a neglected area of scholarship for far too long—leaving us with many unanswered questions that need to be addressed.
Currently, neither the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) nor the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has developed any procedural guidelines for admissions officers when evaluating individuals with current or former legal system involvement. Until this happens, bias, prejudice, and stereotypes will continue to fester unchecked and can lead to individuals being unfairly denied admission to social work education. It’s about time that we put an end to the ambiguity and lack of transparency involved in the evaluation of this population. Our applicants deserve better, and given the core values of our profession, it’s about time we started doing better.
Berdejo, C. (2018). Criminalizing Race: Racial Disparities in Plea-Bargaining. Boston College Law Review, 59 (4), 1188-1249.
Curran, L., Mayers, R. S., Dimarcantonio, L., & Fulghum, F. H. (2019). MSW Programs’ Admissions Policies Regarding Applicants with Histories of Criminal Justice Involvement. Journal of Social Work Education, 1–14. doi: 10.1080/10437797.2019.1661903
Magen, R. H., & Emerman, J. (2000). Should Convicted Felons be Denied Admission to a Social Work Education Program? Journal of Social Work Education, 36(3), 405–408. doi: 10.1080/10437797.2000.10779189
Prison Policy Initiative. (2014). Breaking Down Mass Incarceration in the 2010 Census: State-by-State Incarceration Rates by Race/Ethnicity. Retrieved December 12th, 2019, from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/rates.html
The Hamilton Project. (2016). Rates of Drug Use and Sales, by Race; Rates of Drug Related Criminal Justice Measures, by Race. Retrieved December 12th, 2019, from https://www.hamiltonproject.org/charts/rates_of_drug_use_and_sales_by_race_rates_of_drug_related_criminal_justice