Criminal Defense and Social Work: Makes Sense, Right?

I would argue that all crimes committed- however harmful, illogical, misguided, or seemingly senseless-  were intended by the people who committed them to serve some kind of good in their lives.  The factors and variables that contribute to criminal behavior in any given individual are convoluted to say the least.  Law violations can not be explained away by statements like, “He knows the difference between right and wrong – and he chose to do wrong” or “She is just not a good person.”  A person steals because s/he felt as if the item being taken would bring him or her something good – financial resources, status, respect from peers, etc.  All people want what is good.  The problem is that not all people have great insight as to what is actually good.  They may just need someone they trust to  help them reframe what is good and develop the skills to obtain it.

Right now, it is rare for professionals in the criminal justice system to ask why someone committed a crime – especially prior to the conviction.  All they want to know is, “did you do it?” and “what do you deserve?”  If they were asked, it would be unlikely that the person accused would be able to see all of the dynamics that led to their criminal behavior.  And even if they did have that level of insight, it would be even more unlikely that the punitive measures they received as a result would specifically address those causal factors in an attempt to prevent future violations and/or invoke more positive outcomes for the individual and the community.

Here are the issues:

  1. Here in Travis County, you nearly always have to take a conviction to get services.
  2. The assessments to establish the needs of the individual are nearly nonexistant, severely faulty, and certainly not strengths-based.
  3. The services which most people on probation (or in jail) receive are generally substandard and almost never individualized.

If we, as a society, want to be serious about keeping our communities healthy and safe, we need to commit to changing our strategies for addressing the criminal behaviors of people who live in our communities.

This is where Social Work in a criminal defense setting comes in.

What is Social Work?
According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the primary mission of the social work profession is to:

  • Enhance human well -being
  • Help meet the basic human needs of all people
  • Pay particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, living in poverty
  • Focus on individual well -being in a social context and the well- being of society
  • Pay attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living

What is a Social Worker?
According to the NASW, Social Workers:

  • Promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients. “Clients” is used inclusively to refer to individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
  • Are sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice
  • Seek to enhance the capacity of people to address their own needs
  • Seek to promote the responsiveness of organizations, communities, and other social institutions to individuals’ needs and social problems.

If social work and criminal defense aren’t a perfect fit, then I don’t know what is.

Social Workers are experts at examining a person in his or her environment.  We think about the big picture.  We value the process just as much as the product.  Therefore, it makes complete sense to have Social Workers heavily involved in the criminal defense of a defendant FROM THE ONSET of a case.  Who better to be a member of a team whose sole purpose is to be a zealous advocate for the client?  Clearly criminal defense attorneys and social workers share core values and complementary services.

In the context of a criminal defense law firm, some of the services that social workers can contribute are:

  • Client In-takes (including psycho-social assessments, strengths assessments,  and other basic clients assessments)
  • Gathering mitigation
  • Service Referrals (especially prior to conviction)
  • Strengthening the client’s support network by supporting the family
  • Client Advocacy (especially with prosecutors)
  • Assistance in Life-goal setting and obtainment
  • Recommendations for Expert Evaluations
  • Casework (ensuring that clients are adhering to social work plan and also successfully meeting requirements of the court; i.e. probation, classes, treatment, etc.)
  • Brief counseling (dealing with client and family’s frustration of criminal process, motivating, encouraging, mentoring)
  • Crisis Intervention

Future installments of this blog will explain how we accomplish these tasks at Sumpter & Gonzalez.

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