Methods: Ten states with a high percentage of racial/ethnic minority populations and above-average rates or disparities in incarceration and felony disenfranchisement of racial and ethnic minorities were selected for this study. All except one social work master’s program (N = 110) in these 10 states identified through the CSWE website were included in the study. General, specialized, and dual degree programs’ curricula were then reviewed to determine if course titles or descriptions mentioned mass incarceration or racial/ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.
Results: Titles or descriptions of one or more courses in only 6 master’s programs in California (n = 2), Pennsylvania (n = 2), Illinois (n = 1), and Texas (n = 1) explicitly mentioned the relevant terms. These courses were either offered as electives in the general curriculum or as core or electives in specializations or dual degrees. In an additional 6 programs in Texas (n = 2), Florida (n = 1), Illinois (n = 1), Pennsylvania (n = 1), and Virginia (n = 1), course descriptions suggested the likelihood of some relevance to mass incarceration or racial/ethnic disparities. Programs in Alabama, Arizona, New Jersey, and Tennessee did not offer any courses that explicitly or implicitly referred to mass incarceration or racial/ethnic disparities in their titles or descriptions.
Implications: The findings of this study suggest that social work master’s programs in these 10 states may not be adequately preparing social work students to challenge mass incarceration and address its consequences. This can be attributed to various reasons including program leaders and faculty’s lack of awareness of the magnitude of the problem and its potential impact on social work practice, and the profession’s continued indifference towards examining and addressing issues predominantly affecting racial and ethnic minorities. These findings not only have major implications for social work education and practice, but also raise important questions about social work academia’s ethical obligation to achieving social justice for those most disenfranchised. Yet, additional research is needed to determine how other social work programs are responding to the mass incarceration crisis and if content on mass incarceration or racial/ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system is being infused into course materials.