police cars lined up.

Health Justice and the Criminal Legal System: From Reform to Transformation

By Aysha Pamukcu and Angela P. Harris

Using health justice to reframe and reshape the criminal legal system

The demand to “defund the police,” circulated by the Movement for Black Lives and allies after the brutal 2020 murder of George Floyd, was a departure from the usual discourse of police reform. The demand garnered backlash as being both politically unrealistic and potentially dangerous. But in our view, it demonstrates the transformative potential of social movements focused on justice for marginalized communities. As these justice movements build and strengthen partnerships with public health and civil rights advocates, we see the potential of using the health justice framework to reimagine the future of the criminal legal system.

Calls to deploy the American criminal legal system to enforce national health anxieties are not new, but they too often have produced unjust outcomes, such as adopting criminal punishments for people who are HIV-positive or who are dependent on drugs and pregnant.

In contrast, the health justice framework centers the leadership of social movements for justice and inclusion. Such movements have the capacity to rapidly shift the terms of public debate, making previously unimaginable policy initiatives first discussable, and then doable. And centered in values of anti-subordination, justice movements can challenge biases within elite, highly professionalized disciplines like law and public health.

Policy innovations that emerge from this triple alliance of law, public health, and social movements stand a better chance of improving the lives of marginalized communities than those that treat these communities as targets of discipline or charity. The call to defund the police demonstrates some of these possibilities.

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Police car.

Blurring the Line Between Public Health and Public Safety

By Jocelyn Simonson

Collective movement struggles during the twin crises of COVID-19 and the 2020 uprisings have helped blur the concepts of public safety and public health.

These movements have shown how all of our public health and all of our public safety suffers when we use the police, prosecution, and prisons to solve our collective problems. Their collective resistance to the status quo underscores how these terms — public health and public safety — too often carry with them an exclusionary understanding of which “public” matters.

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Los Angeles, California / USA - May 1, 2020: People in front of Los Angeles’ City Hall protest the state’s COVID-19 stay at home orders in a “Fully Open California” protest.

Social Distancing, Social Protest, and the Social Constitution of a New Body of Law

By Lindsay F. Wiley

COVID-19 mitigation orders, court decisions adjudicating challenges to them, and legislation adopted to constrain similar orders in the future are constituting a new body of law governing social distancing.

The emerging law of social distancing is vital to the future of public health. It also offers more general lessons about how law interacts with individual behavior, social norms, and social contestation of what we owe each other as members of a community.

Social protests — including massive protests for racial justice and against police violence as well as much smaller anti-lockdown protests — are playing an important role in these developments.

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St. Paul, Minnesota /US - June 4, 2020: Police throand protestors during the protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Research and Regulation of Less-Lethal Projectiles Critically Needed

By Rohini Haar and Brian Castner

In 2020, the use of less-lethal weapons in the United States, already overused, took a sharp upturn during the police response to the Black Lives Matter protests. In response, last month, the U.S. House of Representatives formed a commission of inquiry to investigate the health effects of one such weapon: tear gas. Such research is welcome and badly needed. However, tear gas is only part of a larger story. While well-intentioned, the House missed an opportunity to address a wider and more dangerous issue: the use of “less-lethal” projectiles against crowds.

In protecting basic human rights and civil liberties, it is critical to better understand and regulate projectiles — they are dangerous and poorly studied weapons.

Regardless of their specific characteristics, all less-lethal projectiles work by the same principle: they inflict blunt trauma, pain, and intimidation on individuals, while attempting to limit the chances of death or disability as compared to live ammunition. While the weapons certainly do cause shock and pain, avoiding death and disability has not been so straightforward.

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