Friday, January 22, 2021: 5:00 PM-6:00 PM
Cluster: Crime and Criminal Justice
Stephen Edward McMillin, PhD, Saint Louis University
Matthew Epperson, PhD, University of Chicago
The U.S. criminal justice system is a patchwork of fragmented jurisdictions at multiple levels, from the federal to the state to the municipal. This system includes a wide variety of police forces and practices as well as extensive personnel assigned to reentry duties. This system is racially charged, with people of color widely overrepresented at all levels from arrest to incarceration to community supervision. Promoting smart decarceration has been identified as one of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work, and social workers are working to reduce incarceration in ways that protect public safety and address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. However, little is known about naturally emerging innovations and changes to criminal justice practices and behaviors that have produced successful outcomes in line with the goals of the smart decarceration initiative. Locating and understanding where and how naturally emerging innovations have been successful for smart decarceration is crucial given the challenges extant in organizing widespread clinical trials across the fragmented jurisdictions and populations served by the U.S. criminal justice system. The positive deviance approach, widely used in public health (Wolfer & Wilson, 2018), offers a way to identify and analyze naturally emerging innovations. This is achieved by locating outlier positive outcomes among typical populations, then working backwards to explore and investigate the unmeasured and otherwise unidentified outlier behaviors and practices within subsets of these typical populations that are associated with outcomes that are desired but rare. Because positive deviants are located within otherwise typical populations, they generally have no special advantages, resources, or skills beyond what is typical, but have engaged in specific outlier behaviors that have generated outlier, above-average outcomes. Given limited funding and jurisdictional fragmentation within the U.S. criminal justice system, understanding what outlier behaviors produce desired outcomes is a promising way to reduce incarceration and address racial disparities in the criminal justice system while maintaining public safety. This symposium investigates the potential of the positive deviance approach through four papers using qualitative research methods to investigate in-depth what behaviors and practices point to promising outcomes in community policing and renentry for the U.S. criminal justice system. The first paper reports findings from a three-year ethnography examining positive deviant behaviors of a neighborhood liaison officer in a racially diverse, rapidly developing St. Louis neighborhood. The second paper reports effective practices for engaging communities, building relationships, and navigating race-related tensions that positive deviant law enforcement officers employ in African American neighborhoods in South Carolina. The third paper reports how positive deviant pre-release program officers in Chicago were framed as consistent, supportive mentors across the entire reentry process. The fourth paper investigates how some federal probation officers in Eastern Missouri engaged in markedly outlier positive deviance behaviors by conversing about spirituality and playing sports with the returning citizens they supervised. Together, these papers illustrate how modest to marked deviance in professional behaviors and practices by criminal justice personnel engage communities and support returning citizens reentering society.
* noted as presenting author
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