Abstract: Impact of Social Work Services in Public Defense (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

369P Impact of Social Work Services in Public Defense

Friday, January 18, 2019
Continental Parlors 1-3, Ballroom Level (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Sarah Buchanan, PhD, LCSW, Director of Social Services, Knox County Public Defender's Community Law Office, Knoxville, TN
John Orme, PhD, Professor, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Background: Public defenders are increasingly welcoming social workers into their practice, but there is little understanding of the impact of social work services in this context. A review of the literature on social work practice in public defense indicates that little consensus exists regarding outcomes, samples are small and ill-defined, and standardized measures and statistical analysis are lacking. The most significant limitation is the absence of comparison groups. This study examined the effect of social work services on the number and severity of criminal charges during a two-year period. It was hypothesized that social work clients would have fewer and less severe criminal charges.

Methods: A quasi-experimental nonequivalent control group design was used to examine the effect of social work services. Demographic, criminal history, and social work interaction data were provided. Two groups of clients were selected: the legal group received legal services; the social work group received legal and social work services. We examined descriptive statistics and assessed differences between groups. Next, we used propensity score analysis to explore whether legal and social work clients differed in terms of criminal charges when statistically controlling for pre-existing criminal history and demographic characteristics.

Results: Results describe: (1) demographic characteristics for legal (n = 886) and social work (n = 1,039) clients; (2) criminal charges for both groups; (3) social work interactions; (4) differences in alleged offending. The typical client – regardless of group – was a European American, unmarried male in his 30s with a higher number of misdemeanor charges prior to FY13 than felony charges. The primary difference between groups is that clients with misdemeanor charges had a statistically significantly higher likelihood of being in the social work group. Social workers interacted with clients (or on their behalf) an average of ten times, suggesting the development of ongoing relationships. They addressed multiple psychosocial concerns, with substance abuse assistance being the most commonly requested service. The social work group incurred fewer misdemeanor charges during the two-year period. There were no statistically significant differences between the groups in the number of felony charges. When charges were dichotomized, the probability of incurring a misdemeanor remained lower for the social work group. However, the probability of incurring a felony charge was lower for the legal group. There was not a statistically significant difference between groups in the number of felony charges.

Implications: The development of potential methods of measuring the impact of social work services is critical as the social work profession continues to integrate into public defense settings and work toward addressing smart decarceration, homelessness, economic inequality, and equal opportunity and justice – all of which have been identified as Grand Challenges. Beginning steps to understand public defense clients and the differences between groups of clients have been taken with this study, but many questions remain. Practice standards – based on clear, measurable outcomes - should be identified for social work practitioners in public defense systems serving a population of clients with whom the profession has long claimed allegiance.