National Conference to Focus on Smart Decarceration of American Criminal Justice System

Community Engagement; Faculty; Research; Social Work

The United States has the largest number of prisoners in the world, and the largest proportion of the population incarcerated. Though the U.S. holds just 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Since the 1970s, incarceration rates have increased seven times. At its peak in 2008, 2.3 million American adults — around one in 100 — were incarcerated in prison or jail at a cost of over $52 billion annually.

The majority of the imprisoned population is made up of people of color and people suffering from poverty or behavioral health disorders.

While many experts agree that criminal justice reform is essential, the path to that reform is not clear.

A national conference at Washington University in St. Louis Sept. 24-27 will begin a conversation on finding a sustainable solution.

From Mass Incarceration to Effective and Sustainable Decarceration,” sponsored by the Brown School’s Center for Social Development (CSD), will convene national and local thought leaders to outline conceptual frameworks of decarceration through transdisciplinary problem solving, innovation, research and action.

“We need an action plan for sustainable and effective decarceration of America’s jails and prisons,” said Carrie Pettus-Davis, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School and noted national expert on criminal justice system reform and behavioral intervention development.

“While the issues raised in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore and other cities over the last few years have brought needed attention to the issue of incarceration, this problem has been percolating since the 1980s, when we began to adopt ‘tough on crime’ legislation on a national level,” said Pettus-Davis, co-director of the CSD’s Smart Decarceration Initiative and founding director of the Brown School’s Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice.

“The result has been that many people in this country are serving lengthy sentences for minor crimes, leading to a host of economic and public health issues and social injustices,” she said.

Pettus-Davis is co-author, with Matthew Epperson, PhD, of the University of Chicago, of the 2015 paper “From Mass Incarceration to Smart Decarceration,” published by the American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare. Epperson is co-director of the CSD’s Smart Decarceration Initiative.

The inaugural conference of the Smart Decarceration Initiative will convene a diverse group of leaders and thinkers in policy, practice and research dedicated to criminal justice reform. The conference will promote collaboration across disciplines and stimulate scientifically driven, practical and applied policy and community-based innovations.

One major outcome of the conference will be an edited volume that details evidence, conceptual frameworks and an action plan for sustainable decarceration.

“To do this correctly, our approach must be theoretical and evidence-based,” Pettus-Davis said. “We must build effective alternatives to incarceration, from behavioral interventions to policy reforms; we need to allocate resources for social innovations that advance decarceration and we must form cross-sector and cross-disciplinary collaboration to foster criminal justice system transformation.”

For more information on the conference, visit

For more on Pettus-Davis and her research into decarceration, visit

Note to media: Members of the media are welcome to attend any or all of the conference. In addition, Pettus-Davis is available for interviews before and after the conference. For assistance, contact Neil Schoenherr at 314-935-5235 or