Forensic Social Work

Crime and delinquency are listed by most people as second only to the economy when discussing concerns about their life and future. The treatment and management of the criminal offender and victims of crime is an enormous challenge for social service systems and the justice system. Society’s response to crime must be directed by highly trained, educated, and thoughtful professionals who understand the complex interaction of poverty, discrimination, addiction, trauma, and human behavior. Social work practice, policy, administration, and research involving clients impacted by crime and the legal system are the focus of this concentration.

The Forensic Social Work Concentration functions in partnership with the Utah Criminal Justice Center. The Utah Criminal Justice Center is a collaborative effort between the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, College of Social and Behavioral Science, and College of Social Work, as well as the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. The Center serves the needs of citizens through a partnership between government and academe that seeks to reduce crime and victimization, as well as inspire sound public policy and fair treatment in the criminal and juvenile justice systems. It also provides a mode of higher education promoting good governance through independent and non-partisan research, innovative programs and teaching, and the development of a superlative criminal and juvenile justice workforce.

The Preamble of the Social Work Code of Ethics states: “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” Criminal offenders, victims of crime, and substance abusers are frequently among the neediest and most vulnerable population’s social workers serve. The Forensic Social Work Concentration prepares students as professional social workers to work with all aspects of the justice system. This concentration includes work with criminal offenders, victims of crime, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, and substance abuse. Clients in this area have too often been rejected by other social service systems and end up in jails and prisons. Many of these clients face insurmountable issues including discrimination, violence, mental illness, and substance abuse. While the concentration emphasizes work with the legal system, as forensic social workers, the skills learned within this concentration are easily transferable to other areas of practice and interests.

Forensic social work combines work with offenders, victims, and any other individuals that interface with the court systems. It includes work in prisons, with victims of crime, domestic violence, sexual abuse, child welfare, and numerous realms of practice. This field necessitates strong clinical, interdisciplinary, and assessment skills in addition to understanding legal and ethical issues that frequently arise.

Classes stress the fundamental principles of restorative justice: principles of accountability, community safety, and competency development. The origin and theories of crime and delinquency are examined along with understanding the criminal personality and its relationship to the justice system as defined in traditional mental health settings. Students experience the larger criminal justice system from practitioners, who guest lecture in class, and through site visits at community treatment programs and incarceration facilities.

Social work can and should be a prominent profession in the criminal justice community. The Forensic Social Work Concentration educates students to become central practitioners in the criminal justice field, serving as treatment providers, multi-disciplinary team members, and policy members to ensure that social work values and ethics are an integral component of criminal justice services.


Graduates of this concentration are able to:

  • Describe the criminal justice system, its purpose, and the population it serves.
  • Explore the ethical dilemmas inherent in forensic social work. For example, our ethical obligation to advocate for a clients’ self-determination contrasted with the needs of the community for safety, order and justice.
  • Develop competencies in evidence-based practice models and critically evaluate the effectiveness of existing programs for offenders, victims of crime, and families.
  • Describe the development of the criminal personality and its relationship to the justice system. Understand how biological and environmental risk and protective factors lead to antisocial trajectories (micro, mezzo and macro) and to develop intervention strategies to improve outcomes.
  • Apply the principles of evidence based practice and restorative justice in treatment, program development and evaluation.
  • Identify factors that account for the over-representation of people of color, the perception of racial bias and social class distinctions within the criminal justice system.
  • Define and describe the impact of common policy practices such as racial profiling and bootstrapping in the sentencing, treatment and administration of the criminal justice system.
  • Apply evidence-based assessment, planning, interventions and evaluation strategies with individuals, groups and communities.
  • Apply practical research skills for evaluation of individual client interventions and program accountability.
  • Utilize risk assessment instruments with criminal offenders and trauma assessment with victims of crime including the appropriate use of and limitations of psychometric and risk assessment tools.
  • Demonstrate respect for the dignity and worth of clients and victims of crime.
  • Apply the NASW Code of Ethics to practice in the criminal justice system.
  • Develop competencies and skills in working within the courts and judicial system including testifying in court and collaboration with other professionals.

Forensic Social Work Concentration Program of Study Guide

Types of Forensic Practicum Placements: Adult and juvenile justice facilities including prisons, jails, detention facilities, assessment, treatment, probation and parole programs.

For more information, please contact:
Rob Butters, PhD, LCSW
Chair, Forensic Social Work Concentration

Last Updated: 9/4/18