Abstract: The Trojan Horse Resists: Gun Diversion As a Transformer of Institutional Isomorphism in the Reentry Services Field (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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The Trojan Horse Resists: Gun Diversion As a Transformer of Institutional Isomorphism in the Reentry Services Field

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Ahwatukee B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Alison Updyke Neff, DSW, Assistant Professor, West Chester University of Pennsylvania, West Chester, PA
Toorjo Ghose, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Background: Philadelphia has the highest incarceration rate among metropolises in the U.S. It also has one of the highest rates of gun violence in the country. A significant proportion of those incarcerated for longer terms are in prison for gun-related felonies (GRF), with Black men being disproportionately represented in this population. While efforts to reduce incarceration and recidivism usually target drug possession-related offenses, GFR represents a politically sensitive issue that diversion programs have failed to address. Moreover, reentry and diversion services have been critiqued by scholars who argue that service organizations suffer from institutional isomorphism whereby ineffective practices are replicated to gain legitimacy within the reentry services field. Guided by these concerns, this research examines the mechanism through which a structural intervention known as the Alternative Felony Diversion Program (AFDP) transforms normative practices in the courtroom in order to divert Black men with a first-time GRF-charge away from incarceration. Specifically, we study how AFDP, as implemented by a Philadelphia reentry services agency, reshapes institutionally isomorphic practices in the judicial reentry field.

Methods: We employed a multimethod approach by extrapolating qualitative interviews (n=30 clients, n=10 clinicians, total sample n=40), with an ethnographic study of the courtrooms, and participant observation conducted by the authors who were embedded staff members. We utilized a grounded theory approach to code the data.

Results: We found that normative judicial disposition of GRF was shaped by punitive, patriarchal, and shaming attitudes on the part of disposition stakeholders such as Judges, attorneys, and probation and parole officers. We found that the agency, utilizing AFDP, reshaped these practices and logics in periodic conferences with stakeholders where: 1) clients were humanized through the sharing of their anonymized narratives, 2) the need for social workers to become the salient arbiters of risk was enunciated, and 3) the principles of anticarceral movements were highlighted. Moreover, we found that normative practices were recast through: a) affective restructuring whereby stakeholders’ empathy with clients was amplified, making them collaborative guides rather than punitive actors, b) establishing disciplinary boundaries in order to discourage inefficient “role bleeding”, and c) developing clients’ collective voice in the disposition process.

Implications: Scholars of institutional logics note that hybrid logics in external mileus shape organizations and are often managed through strategic coupling. The concept of a “Trojan Horse” is utilized by some theorists to describe the manner in which organizations appear to align with external field practices in order gain legitimacy. However, the role of resistance in the trojan horse process has been undertheorized. We argue that our research enunciates this resistance whereby the agency simultaneously aligned with judicial stakeholders as a diversion services partner, while resisting affective, cognitive, and ritualistic practices on their part. Moreover, while the reentry and diversion field has been justifiably criticized as an inefficient “reentry industrial complex”, we demonstrate that the AFDP holds out the possibility for transformation in this entrenched field. We call attention to the understudied potential of innovative organizations to become the front line of social justice-based change in the current carceral landscape.