Rising national awareness of the damage that the nation's criminal justice policies have inflicted on communities of color has made it a “propitious” moment to apply public health concepts to the challenge of system reform, a Columbia University conference was told yesterday.
Linda Fried, Dean of Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, said public health professionals need to play a more critical role in addressing the “epidemic” of mass incarceration—which is often exacerbated by the failure to address health issues of vulnerable families and youth .
“Public health, incarceration and justice issues are inextricably linked, in both the causes of the incarceration rate, and in the solutions we need to put together,” Fried said.
The two-day conference, supported by the Tow Foundation, provided a rare forum for public health and criminal justice experts to discuss combining forces for the development of innovative approaches in the nation's correctional and judicial systems.
Representatives from 50 public health schools registered to attend the gathering, titled “A Public Health Approach to Incarceration: Opportunities for Action.”
Many said it was crucial for policymakers to support solutions that addressed individuals' personal histories and family circumstances rather than just the offenses that brought them into the system—beginning with flaws in early childhood education and health care.
In a keynote address, Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative, told the story of a young man with severe mental disabilities who had ended up Death Row for a heinous crime—but had never been seen by a mental health professional.
He noted that restrictions on, or lack of access to, social welfare and health programs had deepened the racial inequities of a system in which more than six million Americans were in prison, jail or under supervision.
Women and children involved in the justice system, the majority of whom are African American or Latino, represented in effect a class of “new untouchables,” he said.
Stevenson noted that a provision in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act allows states to ban people with drug convictions from receiving benefits.
He said the provision is hardest on women with children, because they are the most likely to need public support.
Stevenson cited a 640 percent increase in the percentage of women sent to prison in the last 20 years.
“We now have more than a million women and children who cannot get food stamps, who cannot get public housing, who are kept from basic public healthcare systems,” he said. “They are our new untouchables.”
Stevenson said that ultimately practitioners will need to use the lens of public health to persuade “tough on crime” legislators that incarceration is harming the nation.
“You judge the public health of a community by how you treat the poor, the incarcerated, the condemned,” Stevenson said.
“It's no accident that we now have 250,000 people in our adult jails and prisons serving time for crimes committed when they were children.”
Despite research suggesting that most teen delinquents do not end up in a life of crime, Stevenson noted that basic services and rights are routinely denied the formerly incarcerated.
“In my home state of Alabama, 31 percent of the black male pop has lost the right permanently to vote.” Stevenson said.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said prosecutors too often concentrated on the worst criminal offenders while allowing young people who committed misdemeanors to get away with little punishment—setting the stage for a pattern of repeat crimes.
“We have yet to figure out how to balance punishment with (attention) to ensuring first offenders won't come back again,” said Vance. 'By the time we do pay attention to these kids, they have three or four arrests.”
Vance suggested establishing harsher penalties for repeat misdemeanors—a proposal that met with little support from the audience.
Instead, a task force announced Monday by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to study ways of reducing the number of mentally ill people incarcerated in the city came in for praise as a model approach to changing the focus of current criminal justice policies.
Other speakers at the opening day of the conference included: Arlene Lee, board director for the Committee on Law and Justice at the National Academy of Sciences, which recently published a report examining the nation's incarceration policies; John Feinblatt, former public safety advisor to ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and Daniel O'Donnell, chair of the New York State Assembly's Corrections Committee.
Graham Kates is deputy editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.