Kena Vassar learned the importance of connecting people in the criminal justice system to needed social services on the job — working with Shelby County’s Jericho Project. Since 2008, Kena has been serving people living with serious mental illness and substance use disorders, who often cycle through the justice system repeatedly.
She and a team of specialists from the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office and a local mental health service provider develop “community linkage plans” for people in the Shelby County Jail. These plans are presented to the court in support of community-based, alternative sentences, and they connect Jericho clients to needed services after release.
The average recidivism rate among people with serious mental illness in contact with the criminal justice system hovers around 80%. Jericho consistently cuts that rate in half.
Last month, Kena was recognized for her dedication to guiding others in this field when she was named the 2015 Masters of Social Work Field Instructor of the Year by the University of Memphis Department of Social Work.
She was honored at a symposium held by the University of Memphis at the Doubletree Inn in Memphis. Kena was nominated by Stephanie Lovins, a Masters of Social Work (MSW) candidate from the U of M.
“Kena always was willing to help me learn and guide me,” Stephanie Lovins, former Jericho Project intern. “She epitomizes what social work is when it comes to helping persons who are vulnerable and oppressed.”
Stephanie is the first MSW student to intern with the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. The office is moving toward including more social work into its practice. For the first time, the public defender’s office has hired two full-time social workers. They are currently serving clients in the office’s new juvenile defender unit.
These small steps are part of an effort to provide more comprehensive and effective services for those who face the challenges of living in poverty and have been involved with the criminal justice system.
Dr. Elana Delavaga is an assistant professor with the University of Memphis Department of Social Work. Her research focuses on poverty and how it intersects with oppression and exclusion. She believes social work can and should play a critical support role in a public defender system.
“We feel the poor very often do not get a fair hearing and end up disproportionately imprisoned simply because they do not have access, the resources that more affluent groups have in terms of defense,” says Elana Delavaga. “One of the things that happens is that public defenders are overworked, they have tremendously large caseloads, they do an incredibly hard job and they have very little support. Our role as social workers is to support public defenders by providing background information by talking to the client, by doing psycho-social assessment, by ensuring the rights of those most marginalized are protected. So we want to be a support to the people already doing a great job in defending the excluded, those who do not have the backing of money for their own defense.”
Offices like the Bronx Defenders in New York have led the way in providing comprehensive services to clients, making social workers an essential component of their work. The Bronx Defenders believe that social workers help clients “achieve better outcomes in and out of the courtroom.” These results are good not only for clients, but the entire community. Results we may see more of in Shelby County.