Laura Abrams

Professor Abrams’ scholarship focuses on improving the well-being of youth and adults with histories of incarceration. Her ethnographic studies have examined youths’ experiences of criminality, risk, and institutions seeking to reshape their identities. These themes are considered in her first book Compassionate Confinement: A Year in the Life of Unit C (Rutgers University Press, 2013). Her second book Everyday Desistance: The Transition to Adulthood Among Formerly Incarcerated Youth (Rutgers University Press, 2017), examines how formerly incarcerated young men and women navigate reentry and the transition to adulthood in the context of urban Los Angeles. She has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and is the editor of two edited volumes: The Voluntary Sector in Prisons (Palgrave, 2016); and The International Handbook of Youth Imprisonment (Palgrave, 2021). She also partnered with Professor Laura Wray-Lake to produce a recent SCRD monograph entitled Pathways to Civic Engagement Among Urban Youth of Color.


Dr. Abrams is currently involved in several studies concerning the youth and adult criminal legal systems and reentry, locally and globally. Her study of youth justice models in four countries examined how issues of age, maturity, and culpability are constructed in law and practice. A mixed methods study of very young offenders, incarceration, health, and public policy led to a state bill in California barring juvenile justice jurisdiction in for youth under age 12; a model that is spreading nationally. Dr. Abrams is currently fielding a study on reentry, health, and social networks among young people aged 18-25 from Los Angeles County jails and along with PI Dr. Elizabeth Barnert, is the co-director of the UCLA Life Course Intervention Research Network – Youth Justice Node. She is also working with a national team to examine life after “juvenile life without parole” in the United States.


In the community, Dr. Abrams has served as an expert witness for death row appeals and in cases involving minors fighting their fitness to be tried as adults. She has provided public and congressional testimony regarding treatment in the juvenile justice system, the reentry needs of youth, and effective practices for the reintegration of reentry youth into the community.


Dr. Abrams’ work and opinions have been cited in a range of news media including the Washington Post, the New York Times and NPR, among others. She has received numerous awards for her scholarship, including the SSWR best scholarly book award (2020) and the Frank R. Bruel prize for the best published article in Social Service Review (2013). In 2020 Dr. Abrams was inducted as a member of the American Academy for Social Work and Social Welfare. In 2022, she received the inaugural UCLA Public Impact award and was inducted into the UCLA Faculty Mentoring Honor Society .


Professor Abrams teaches the following courses: SW 211B: Human Behavior and the Social Environment II; SW 229: The Craft of Social Welfare Scholarship; SW249: Qualitative Methods; and SW 290T: Juvenile Justice Policy.


You can follow Dr. Abrams on Twitter or the Facebook page for the Social Welfare Chair


Recent News Releases and Media Interviews:

Vera Institute of Justice: Everyday Desistance

Growing Pains of Formerly Incarcerated Youth 

GPS Rules Send California Juveniles Into a Jail Cycle

Jailed Indiana Teens Reach a Crossroads

MPR News On Abuse in a Private Juvenile Facility

Seeking Justice for Juveniles

More Protections for Juvenile Offenders are Before California Legislators

Take Two: Is Jail for Juveniles Effective in Preventing Future Crime?

Juvenile Arrests Plunged Last Year, why?

Expanding rehabilitation Programs under Federal Decree- NPR

The California Report: NPR

“You Can Run But You Can’t Hide”

01907409 By Adeney Zo
UCLA Luskin student writer 

Professor Laura Abrams, chair of the social welfare doctoral program, and alumna Diane Terry BA ’01 MSW ’04 Ph.D. ’12 recently published an article in the Children and Youth Services Review titled, “You can run but you can’t hide”: How formerly incarcerated young men navigate neighborhood risks.”

This qualitative study offers a window into the lives of formerly incarcerated youth, focusing on the struggles they encounter while transitioning out of the incarceration system and into adulthood.

In light of the viral nationwide reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent events, this article addresses very relevant issues of racial disparity in the criminal justice system and police violence by turning to a more personal, narrative focus.

Seventeen formerly incarcerated young men were interviewed about their methods for navigating everyday risks, a complex survival strategy which balances obligation to gang brothers, avoiding of re-incarceration, and steering away from dangerous areas and situations. Through analyzing how formerly incarcerated youth develop strategies for safety and survival into adulthood, this study may provide a stepping stone to solving the issues of poverty, racial tensions, and police brutality which are currently the center of debate and discussion in America.

Luskin Lecture Spurs Conversation on Poverty in America Event featured screening of documentary "American Winter" followed by panel discussion.

american_winter copy

By Alejandra Reyes-Velarde
UCLA Luskin student writer

On Tuesday, the Luskin School of Public Affairs held its first Luskin Lecture featuring a film screening and panel discussion about middle class Americans falling into poverty after the recession of 2008.

The documentary, “American Winter” attempted to dispel perceptions and stereotypes about people who face poverty. The film follows the lives of eight families in their struggle to search for jobs and resources as their financial debts continued to grow, making homelessness a possibility for their futures.

After the screening, Film Director Joe Gantz, Housing Advocate with Volunteers of America Orlando Ward, and Social Welfare professor Laura Abrams sat down with moderator Val Zavala of KCET to discussed the themes of the film with the audience.

Ward, who was homeless and spent 15 years on Skid Row before going on to become the Vice President of Operations at Midnight Mission said he found the film emotionally satisfying and well informed in pointing to solutions.

“(Being homeless) is the most dehumanizing situation to be in. The film captured the fact that these are people that can be your friends, your neighbors or your family,” Ward said.

Having lived with these families while making the film, Gantz said he saw the stress they went through to maintain basic needs like paying electric bills and feeding their kids.

“I think what you see in this film is that these myths about it being the people’s fault are anything but true. These families are incredibly resourceful and hard working,” Gantz said.

Gantz is known for being able to bring to light very personal and intimate moments between the people in the films. In American Winter, some of the most emotional moments for the audience and the panel included those depicting the children’s emotional turmoil over their parents’ wellbeing or how they might support their own families in the future.

Professor Abrams felt deeply moved by the children and said it highlighted the important topic of childhood development.

“They were hopeful, compassionate and empathetic…Although they were the most endearing to me, I felt their having to worry about their parents well-being was very sad,” she said. “On the more intellectual side, we know that cumulative stresses add up, affecting their neurological development and coping strategies. We have to think about where these children are going to be 20 to 30 years from now.”

The film addressed topics on a political level as well, using shocking statistics throughout the documentary revealing how money in America is distributed.

“The money is going to the top 10% and the middle class is disappearing. On top of that, new laws make it possible to pour unlimited amounts of money into elections. You begin to wonder if this system is able to be called democracy,” Gantz said.

Although he thinks the federal response to this crisis did some good, Gantz said he was not struck by the U.S. reaching out empathically to those in need. Instead, services and programs that benefited those in need were cut and those families were left in the dark, he said.

Ward said he does not think the American government can solve these types of problems on their own. Instead, we have to look at the third side and understand the personal responsibility in the situation, he said.

“The film was about the fragility of hope. I think the film captured where we are as a country right now. I think a lot of us were seeing the pillars this country was built on was hope.”

Professor Abrams concluded the event by noting that this type of discussion and the issues presented are exactly the type that UCLA Luskin programs aim to address. This event was part of the School’s “Season of Service” that is highlighting underserved populations and the many ways students, faculty, staff and alumni are working to build a better world.

Additional upcoming Season of Service events:

Tuesday, Oct. 28:

Tuesday, Nov. 4:

  • A discussion on Coordinated Entry Systems will be held at 5:30pm in the Public Affairs Building.

A highlight of the Season of Service is on Saturday, Nov. 15 when the Luskin School participates in the 2014 United Way Homewalk at Exposition Park – walking and running to end homelessness.

New Study Looks at Recidivism Rates Among Juvenile Offenders

A first-of-its-kind study co-authored by Social Welfare Professor Laura Abrams has gained attention by the National Association of Social Workers for its findings on juvenile offenders and rates of recidivism.

The study was published in the March 2014 issue of Social Work Research, and was highlighted on the NASW blog. According to the paper, the findings from the study are contradictory to the majority of the existing literature.

The paper looks at three different types of confinement sentences given to first-time violent offenders — probation in the home, group-home placement and probation-camp placement — and examines whether the type of placement affects the chances of recidivism for those offenders.

Abrams and her co-authors, lead researcher Joseph P. Ryan of the University of Michigan and Hui Huang of Florida International University, used records from the Los Angeles County Department of Probation and the Department of Children and Family Services from 2003-2009 as data. They used a statistical technique called propensity score matching to control for static risks such as gender, race, and age.

The study found that compared with in-home probation, the likelihood of recidivism was 2.12 times greater for youths assigned to probation camps and 1.28 times greater for youths assigned to group homes.

The authors conclude: “This is an important finding because it helps the field identify effective and efficient strategies for interrupting criminal careers that do not disrupt important social bonds to family, peers, and school. Empirical evidence, rather than popular rhetoric, should serve as the driving force for public policy and clinical innovations in working with violent young people.”

You can read the full study here.

The study was also highlighted in “Journalist’s Resource” run by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.


Doctoral Students Pioneer New Research in Social Welfare

By Adeney Zo
UCLA Luskin student writer 

UCLA Luskin is home to a renowned Social Welfare doctoral program, one that focuses on independent research and interdisciplinary studies in order to produce top scholars and researchers. “Our doctoral program offers students the opportunity to pursue an independent line of study,” says professor Laura Abrams, chair of the doctoral program. “Although we are a small program, we focus on each individual student so that they are able to pursue these diverse interests and become leaders and scholars.” Among many notable achievements by both students and faculty, the following Social Welfare students were recently recognized for their research and work.

Two students had the opportunity to present academic papers at the Society for Social Work and Research conference in San Antonio. Gina Rosen presented a paper on “Determinants of Employment: Impact of Medicaid and CHIP among Unmarried Female Heads of Household with Young Children.” For her research, Rosen analyzed how social welfare programs impact the employment choices of low-income single mothers with young children (particularly under the age of six). Rosen explains that her childhood in Milwaukee, a city with high rates of inequality and segregation, inspired her to study policy issues in college and graduate school. “I wanted to look at these equality and fairness issues and how to correct them through public policy,” says Rosen. Her work was also recently accepted for publication in the journal Social Work in Public Health.

For the same conference, Christina Tam presented two papers on juvenile delinquency. For her first paper, “Gender Differences in Desistance from Crime: How Do Formerly Incarcerated Emerging Adults Use Social Supports?” Tam worked closely with Professor Abrams on the subject of transition to adulthood among formerly incarcerated young people, ages 18-25. This study analyzes youth transitioning out of juvenile justice and foster care systems. “I am interested in better understanding their experiences, as well as the practices and policies that may help these young people to cross this significant bridge,” explains Abrams.

Tam’s second project, and the subject of her dissertation, is a quantitative study on the overrepresentation of Southeast Asians in the American justice system. Her paper focuses on the acculturation of immigrant Cambodian families that have survived trauma and violence and how these changes affect rates of incarceration for their youth. Tam explains, “[I chose this group because] as a small population with a high amount of incarcerated youth, they are an understudied group in America.” Tam’s interest in the justice system stems from her undergraduate days as a Psychology and Criminology student at UC Irvine, and she describes her current research as “a good melding of all my interests, especially with studying second-generation Asian Americans.”

Matthew Mizel is also working closely with Professor Abrams on issues relating to incarcerated youth. Mizel first developed an interest in helping these youth through a volunteer teaching program in juvenile hall. “In 2003, I began teaching creative writing as a volunteer to incarcerated youth, and through the years my passion for that grew,” Mizel relates. “I eventually wanted to spend more of my time making an impact, and I decided the best way to do that was getting my Master’s and Ph.D.” For his research, Mizel conducted a systematic review on the use of mentoring programs as intervention for formerly incarcerated youth. He worked with Abrams to submit his research to the Journal of Evidence-Based Work, which was accepted last summer. “I learned a great deal from working with Professor Abrams. She helped me grow as a researcher and social welfare scholar,” says Mizel. “I ultimately want to become a professor in the future, and UCLA Luskin is helping me get the training and knowledge I need.”

While Tam and Mizel work with Abrams on youth incarceration, a few students also collaborate with Ian Holloway, Assistant Professor in Social Welfare, to research the social determinants of HIV/AIDS. “HIV is a major public health issue,” comments Holloway. “We’ve made tremendous progress in terms of preventing the virus in certain populations like mothers and infants. Now it’s important to address health disparities in sexual minority communities and racial ethnic groups disproportionately affected by HIV.” Holloway’s current research focuses on analyzing the social networks of HIV positive men in Los Angeles in relation to their well being and health, as well as developing a mobile smartphone application to encourage HIV testing and treatment among young African American gay and bisexual men (a heavily impacted demographic).

Shannon Dunlap is one of four students currently working with Professor Holloway on his social network research. “We’re using an informative survey to assess social networks of different people affected by HIV,” explains Dunlap. “We want to know how many people are in their social network, who they talk to, and how their social network supports them.” Outside of her studies, Dunlap also works with AMP!, a UCLA Art & Global Health Center program that aims to educate students about HIV through song, dance, and personal stories. “I’m looking at how [AMP!] impacts students and their social networks, along with how well the message has been received,” says Dunlap.

For fellow student Lesley Harris, HIV research led her on a journey to Vietnam to conduct a three-year field study. A country with traditionally underreported rates of HIV and a large population of young adults who are injection drug users, Vietnam is a key location to study the medical and social effects of HIV/AIDS. Harris’ studies focus on the relationship between children who have lost their parents due to AIDS and their grandparents, who consequently become the caretakers. By examining the effects of HIV on family dynamics, Harris also hopes to understand the greater social context surrounding the HIV epidemic in Vietnam. “Health is something that is socially constructed,” explains Harris. “The grandparents in Vietnam understood AIDS as a social evil, not a health issue.”

While conducting her field study, Harris also began to notice the importance of her relationship with her interpreter, a Vietnamese local. “Without an interpreter, it’s hard to bridge the cultural disconnect,” says Harris. “My interpreter actually had his own interpretation of the data, by looking at it through a Vietnamese lens.” As researcher-interpreter relation is not a frequently studied topic, Harris began work on a separate paper analyzing her close relationship with her interpreter and how it affected her understanding of the research. The resulting product, “Working in Partnership with Interpreters: Studies on Individuals Affected by HIV/AIDS in Vietnam,” was recently published in the Qualitative Health Research journal. Lesley is currently preparing for her final defense of her dissertation (chaired by emeritus professor Ted Benjamin) and is beginning a job as an assistant professor at the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work in the fall.

While each Social Welfare student’s interests and research varies widely, their combined achievements serve to bring new insight and perspective to the field. “The Social Welfare program has a unique mix of scholars interested in society’s most pressing issues,” says Holloway. “Many of these issues intersect, and what’s been most exciting for me is that there is a lot of encouragement of interdisciplinary collaboration both within the school and within the larger university.” As the doctoral program continues to foster the development of innovative and interdisciplinary scholars, there may be more achievements in store for the students of Social Welfare.

Abrams’ Article Named Best of 2013

An article by Social Welfare professor Laura Abrams has been named the best article of 2013 to be published in the academic journal Social Service Review.

Abrams’ article, “Juvenile Justice at a Crossroads: Science, Evidence, and Twenty-First Century Reform,” was selected as the winner of the Frank R. Breul Memorial Prize, named for a University of Chicago professor of social service administration. The award carries with it a $1,000 honorarium.

Weaving together a survey of the history of the juvenile justice system with a detailed narrative of recent efforts to use scientific advances to spur policy reforms, Abrams’ article argues that “social workers ought to play a more visible role” in shaping the future of the system. Only the input of those who work most closely with troubled youth — and their families, schools and neighborhoods — can help build a better system, she writes.

The journal’s editorial board heralded Abrams’ inclusion of historical context, admiring the article’s ability to drive “the profession to take stock and to rethink its current direction.”

Abrams, who chairs UCLA Luskin’s doctoral degree program in Social Welfare, most recently wrote Compassionate Confinement: A Year in the Life of Unit C, which draws on a decade of research and more than a year of fieldwork she and her co-author conducted at a juvenile justice facility in Minnesota. Reviews have recognized its “engaging narratives, rich observations, and descriptive depictions of human experiences.” In October 2013 Abrams was selected to deliver the Seabury Memorial Lecture at UC Berkeley.

Abrams’ article appeared in the December 2013 issue of Social Service Review, Vol. 87, No. 4, pp. 725-752.