CDPS Speaker Series: Dr. Matthew Epperson Discusses Alternatives to Incarceration

July 10, 2020

The Community Development and Policy Studies (CDPS) division recently welcomed the second speaker of the new internal speaker series, Dr. Matthew Epperson. The speaker series garners diverse perspectives from researchers to enhance the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s work in improving socioeconomic prospects for marginalized communities. A key component of uplifting marginalized communities is in alignment with scholarship which speaks to pressing social issues that affect these communities. Epperson’s research examines-evidence-based solutions to addressing mass incarceration, a topic of importance to our work in the wake of recent civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd.

Epperson is an associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Additionally, he serves as the director of the Smart Decarceration Project. His research focuses on developing, implementing, and evaluating interventions designed to reduce disparities in the criminal justice system. Epperson’s research explores risk factors for criminal justice involvement among persons with mental illnesses, as well as evidence-based approaches to combat mass incarceration.

This blog provides some framing evidence for the urgency of addressing mass incarceration, followed by suggestions for ways in which to decrease the prison population, drawing on Epperson’s research and the Smart Decarceration Project.

Why do we care about mass incarceration?

Mass incarceration refers to the phenomena in which large portions of the population are imprisoned. In the past four decades, the prison population has increased six-fold, with more than two million adults in prison.1 However, this high level of incarceration disproportionately affects certain populations. Black people make up 33 percent of the prison population while being only 12 percent of the national population.2 Furthermore, 77 percent of the prison population is comprised of people with substance abuse or mental health issues. People who are homeless are also more likely to experience incarceration.3 In effect, characteristics that place people at the margins of the society also increase their odds of being incarcerated.

Mass incarceration has negative implications for both individuals and communities. First, there is little evidence that imprisonment improves long-term outcomes for individuals, as evidenced by high rates of recidivism.4 Second, the high costs of incarcerating individuals extracts resources from families and, by extension, communities for education, healthcare, housing, and other needs.5 Further, as recently evidenced, incarcerated individuals are housed in conditions that make them exceptionally vulnerable to public health crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic.6

Ways to address mass incarceration

Today, after 30 years of exponential growth in prison populations, recent data indicates a decline in this trend. As a result, we have an opportunity to address mass incarceration and rethink its premise as a response to underlying social issues.

Smart Decarceration, according to Epperson, recognizes three different imperatives. The first is to reduce the imprisoned population. Many researchers of this issue advocate for cutting the current population by at least half. The second is to acknowledge and investigate the racial disparities within that population. The third imperative involves studying behavioral health disparities among those who are incarcerated.

Epperson warns that there are important considerations to be made in pursuing Smart Decarceration. First, it is possible to reduce the prison population while increasing some of the underlying disparities of mass incarceration. For example, although the prison population has decreased as of late, the number of people with mental illness has persisted, indicating an increase in the share of the prison population with mental illness. Policymakers need to be intentional about addressing disparities, in addition to reducing the overall number of incarcerated. Second, public safety must be considered. Smart Decarceration should not contribute to increased violence or decreased personal safety. Consequently, measures taken as an alternative to incarceration must address some of the underlying causes of crime in the community that can potentially make communities unsafe, such as lack of adequate access to mental health resources.

Epperson also stressed the importance of building social capacity at the community level. Social capacity enables communities to have input over the decisions and resources that impact quality of life. As an example, a community might choose to fund alternative social programs, such as increased mental health services instead of focusing on policing as the primary way to address crime. Social capacity building recognizes that community stakeholders are experts with specialized knowledge of their neighborhoods, who understand local assets and local challenges. Thus, social capacity building does not function identically across communities and the measures used to strengthen communities are set according to the perspectives of their residents.

Understanding Dr. Epperson’s work in context

It is important to acknowledge the scholarship that informs Epperson’s work, especially as interest in criminal justice reform policy, a topic of great interest to Black Studies scholars and social justice advocates for many years, has recently gained much broader attention. For example, Angela Davis7 and Ruth Wilson Gilmore8 have longed called for policymakers to reconsider the function and utilization of carceral responses to solving social issues and advocate for a fundamental restructuring of the criminal justice system that prioritizes access to essential resources over punishment.


Epperson’s presentation came at a pivotal moment as scholars and policymakers consider alternatives to incarceration when addressing chronic social challenges. Smart Decarceration offers an evidence-based pathway to redirecting resources away from mass incarceration to community stakeholder-informed interventions that will provide residents with needed resources.


1 Bureau of Justice Statistics.

2 Pew Research Center.

3 The Washington Post.

4 U.S. Department of Justice.

5 The Marshall Project.

6 Health Affairs.

7 Davis, Angela, 2003, Are Prisons Obsolete?, available online.

8 Wilson Gilmore, Ruth, 2007, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, available online.

The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.

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