Question: Are there any MSW programs with a specialization in Forensic Social Work?

Answer: Yes, there are MSW programs that can prepare students to work in forensic social work (also known as criminal justice social work). There are MSW programs with specializations in forensic social work, as well as MSW programs that offer an additional certificate program in forensic social work for their students. MSW programs in criminal justice social work prepare students to work with vulnerable populations who are subject to the criminal justice system.

Incarcerated individuals and others who are subject to the legal system can be among the most vulnerable people in society due to numerous factors, including racial and cultural prejudices, socioeconomic hardship, insufficient access to social services, and lack of adequate representation within the legal system. MSW programs in forensic social work or criminal justice social work prepare students to support people within the criminal justice system. To this end, these programs often feature courses on the American legal process and social work’s role within it, how to work with law officials and attorneys, and how to assess and support the mental and emotional health of their clients through diagnostic assessments, clinical therapeutic modalities, and case management services. In addition to MSW programs with a formal specialization in forensic or criminal justice social work, there are also clinical social work MSW programs that have a sub-specialization or track in forensic social work.

Clinical MSW programs with specializations or sub-specializations in forensic or criminal justice social work are not as common as other clinical MSW specializations (such as trauma, child and/or family therapy, mental health, and/or substance abuse), and at present very few schools of social work offer online MSW programs with a specialization or sub-specialization in forensic social work. Therefore, students who are interested in attending a program with a formal specialization may need to relocate for graduate school. However, there are online and campus-based MSW programs that offer courses in criminal justice social work or allow students to take interdepartmental electives in such areas as criminology, U.S. Constitutional law, sociology, and other subjects related to criminal justice social work.

Students who are interested in the field of forensic social work should proactively review the curriculum options at their programs of interest. In addition, students should speak with a program administrator or admissions officer at these programs in order to determine whether they have the courses or interdepartmental elective options to provide students with the training they desire. Furthermore, once students have enrolled in an MSW program, they should advocate for their interests in criminal justice social work by speaking with their graduate academic advisor to determine a program of study that fits their goals. Students should also consult their field education director to try and find field practicum placements that are related to forensic social work.

Curriculum Details for MSW Programs in Criminal Justice Social Work

The curricula for MSW programs in forensic or criminal justice social work typically combine clinical social work practices and principles with a macro-level understanding of how society and culture, government and law enforcement, and human services organizations collectively impact the experience of people in the criminal justice system. The first year of an MSW program in forensic social work typically covers essential social work practices, as well as foundational skills in social work research and advocacy. Second-year coursework for these programs may cover advanced clinical social work modalities, complex social work cases, and methods for working with vulnerable populations in the prison and criminal justice systems. Some MSW programs in forensic social work require or allow students to take classes outside of their school or department of social work, such as courses in law, sociology, education, criminology, and other related areas.

Below is a sample chart outlining the program requirements for an MSW program in forensic or criminal justice social work. Please note that these program requirements are for informational purposes only, and are not meant to exactly represent an existing MSW program.

Curriculum ComponentExample Courses and Field Education Requirements
Core Courses
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Foundations of Social Work Practice
  • Social Work Policy and Advocacy
  • Social Work Research
  • Advanced Clinical Social Work Methodologies
Concentration Courses
  • Criminal Justice Policies in Social Work Practice
  • Criminal Procedures
  • The School-to-Prison Pipeline
  • Diversity and Incarceration
  • Trauma and Crisis Social Work for Individuals in the Criminal Justice System
  • Innovative Social Work Approaches to Community Reintegration
Elective Courses
  • Substance Abuse and Behavioral Addictions
  • Group Psychotherapy
Field Education Requirements
  • Foundational Field Practicum and Integrative Field Seminar
  • Advanced Field Practicum and Integrative Field Seminar

The courses that students might expect to take as part of a forensic social work MSW program may include but are not limited to:

  • Criminal Justice Policies in Social Work Practice: This course examines the root causes of the increase in the prison population in the United States over the last several decades, and the historical and contemporary government policies that impact this rise in imprisonment nationwide. Students learn how to work effectively with clients within the context of the larger American legal system. Three-strike legislation, discrimination, and re-entry and recidivism are among the topics discussed.
  • Criminal Procedures: This course provides an in-depth overview of criminal procedure and laws according to the United States Constitution. Students discuss the laws around search and seizure, interrogation, arrest, and the provision or deprivation of legal counsel. They also examine the impact that legal doctrine has had on a larger societal level, and key questions about the intersections of social and criminal justice are posed.
  • Diversity and Incarceration: This course investigates the roles that racial, sexual, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity and prejudice play in the criminal justice system. Students are also provided the opportunity to interact with incarcerated populations and to develop health education and mental health counseling programs that address the diverse needs of different inmate populations.
  • The School-to-Prison Pipeline: This course examines the punitive policies that target adolescents and young adults, and which result in their being absorbed into the criminal justice system. Students learn the historical and political contexts that contribute to this school-to-prison pipeline, and also learn ways to prevent youth from entering this pipeline through a combination of direct counseling, social work programs, and political advocacy.
  • Innovative Social Work Approaches to Community Reintegration: Students learn how to combine clinical social work needs assessments with principles of entrepreneurship and business development to design programs that support the reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals back into society. Students take a hands-on approach by working with partnering agencies to build and/or improve upon programs.

Field Education for MSW Programs in Forensic Social Work

In general, MSW programs in criminal justice social work require that students complete one or both of their field practicums in a setting that is related to criminal justice. Such settings include prisons, a local county court, substance abuse rehabilitation centers, social work agencies that support incarcerated individuals and their families, criminal justice advocacy organizations, and community centers that help people who have recently been released from prison reintegrate into society.

MSW programs vary in terms of how they handle students’ field practicum placements. While some programs actively match students to field placement sites and supervisors based on their academic interests and career goals, other programs expect students to arrange their own field placements. Students with a specific interest in forensic or criminal justice social work should plan well in advance of their practicum so that they (and/or their program’s field education director and staff) can find a suitable criminal justice-related site well before the term during which they must complete their field education. For more information on field education, including the field placement process and how students can optimize their performance and experience during their practicums, please refer to our comprehensive Guide to Field Education.