Epperson, who has done extensive research on behavioral health disparities in the criminal justice system, is one of the nation’s most prominent scholars on reducing the number of people behind bars. He directs the Smart Decarceration Initiative, which aims to reduce incarceration rates in ways that are effective, sustainable, and socially just. Epperson and other leaders of the decarceration movement hope to cut the prison and jail population by one million people, about half of the incarcerated population.
“It could take 10 years to do that in a sustainable way,” Epperson says. “We’re going to have to develop evidence-based policies and practices as we are decarcerating to find what works, what to do more of, what do less of.”
Decarceration is a response to failed “tough on crime” policies, particularly the war on drugs begun during the 1980s, which led to an increase of people incarcerated in jail or prison from 100 per 100,000 in 1975 to 700 per 100,000 of the nation’s population in 2000. Incarceration disproportionately affects poor people and African Americans, which is directly related to our country’s legacy of systemic racism, Epperson says. African Americans, who make up 13 percent of the nation’s population, comprise 40 percent of the prison population, and research has shown that this is largely due to unequal treatment in the criminal justice system.
A centerpiece for the decarceration conversation was a conference Epperson organized, “Tools and Tactics: Promising Solutions to Advance the Era of Smart Decarceration.” It brought policymakers, formerly incarcerated leaders, and practitioners together from November 2 to 4 at SSA. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) gave a keynote address.
The conference opened with “A Conversation with Susan Burton,” featuring the formerly incarcerated founder and executive director of A New Way of Life, a national organization that helps former prisoners, in conversation with Reuben Miller, Assistant Professor at SSA.
Other keynote speakers were Shaun King, prominent activist and writer; Karol Mason, President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former U.S. Assistant Attorney General; Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project; and Ronald Sullivan, Professor and Director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the Harvard Law School.
Panel topics centered on decarceration-focused policy innovations, violence and criminal justice reform in Chicago, behavioral health inequities in the criminal justice system, and organizing for decarceration.
Epperson’s leadership led to his co-editing Smart Decarceration: Achieving Criminal Justice Transformation in the 21st Century, published in 2017 by Oxford University Press. The book’s co-editor is Carrie Pettus-Davis, who with Epperson has codirected the Smart Decarceration Initiative. Epperson spoke about the Smart Decarceration book January 25 at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago in its Urban Reader’s Series.
The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare selected “Promote Smart Decarceration” in 2016 as one of the 12 grand challenges for social work during the next decade. Epperson co-leads this grand challenge network with Pettus-Davis. In January 2018, Oxford University Press published a chapter authored by Epperson, “Promote Smart Decarceration,” in a book Grand Challenges for Social Work and Society.
Epperson’s leadership is grounded in applied research. He is currently conducting a multisite study in Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis that examines the development and implementation of deferred prosecution programs, a prosecutor-led innovation to divert people with nonviolent charges from traditional criminal justice processing. He is also developing and testing a treatment engagement intervention for probation officers in Cook County’s mental health probation unit. Epperson has also recently begun a study to identify ways that social capacity can be developed in high-incarceration communities to improve behavioral health and reduce criminal justice involvement.
He was recently interviewed about decarceration for the inaugural UChicago News Office’s Knowledge Applied podcast, “How to Reduce the U.S. Prison Population by Nearly Half.” The podcast is available at https://news.uchicago.edu/podcasts.