Scales of justice and gavel on table.

Symposium Introduction: Health Justice: Engaging Critical Perspectives in Health Law and Policy

By Ruqaiijah Yearby and Lindsay F. Wiley

Public health scholars, advocates, and officials have long recognized that factors outside an individual’s control act as barriers to individual and community health.

To strive for health equity, in which everyone “has the opportunity to attain . . . full health potential and no one is disadvantaged from achieving this potential because of social position or any other socially defined circumstance,” many have adopted the social determinants of health (SDOH) model, which identifies social and economic factors that shape health. Yet, health equity has remained elusive in the United States, in part because the frameworks that most prominently guide health reform do not adequately address subordination as the root cause of health inequity, focus too much on individuals, and fail to center community voices and perspectives.

The health justice movement seeks to fill these gaps. Based in part on principles from the reproductive justice, environmental justice, food justice, and civil rights movements, the health justice movement rejects the notion that health inequity is an individual phenomenon best explained and addressed by focusing on health-related behaviors and access to health care. Instead it focuses on health inequity as a social phenomenon demanding wide-ranging structural interventions.

This digital symposium, part of the Health Justice: Engaging Critical Perspectives in Health Law & Policy Initiative launched in 2020, seeks to further define the contours of and debates within the health justice movement and explore how scholars, activists, communities, and public health officials can use health justice frameworks to achieve health equity.

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Prison watch tower.

Government Report Finds Care Deficits for Pregnant People in Federal Custody

By Elyssa Spitzer

Pregnant and postpartum people in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and U.S. Marshals Service receive care directed by policies that fail to meet national standards, according to a report recently issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

This, despite the fact that, incarcerated women are among the most vulnerable people, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In the GAO report’s terms, incarcerated women: “often have medical and mental health conditions that make their pregnancies a high risk for adverse outcomes, which is compounded by inconsistent access to adequate, quality pregnancy care and nutrition while in custody.”

Notably, the report found that the BOP and U.S. Marshals’ policies failed to satisfy the national standards — to say nothing of the gaps that may exist between written policy and the care that is, in fact, provided. Read More

lady justice.

Computational Psychiatry for Precision Sentencing in Criminal Law

By Francis X. Shen

A core failing of the criminal justice system is its inability to individualize criminal sentences and tailor probation and parole to meet the unique profile of each offender.

As legal scholar, and now federal judge Stephanos Bibas has observed, “All too often … sentencing guidelines and statutes act as sledgehammers rather than scalpels.”

As a result, dangerous offenders may be released, while offenders who pose little risk to society are left behind bars. And recidivism is common — the U.S. has an astounding recidivism rate of 80% — in part because the current criminal justice system largely fails to address mental health challenges, which are heavily over-represented in the justice system.

Advances in computational psychiatry, such as the deep phenotyping methods explored in this symposium, offer clinicians newfound abilities to practice precision psychiatry. The idea behind precision psychiatry is both simple and elusive: treat individuals as individuals. Yet advancing such a program in practice is “very ambitious” because no two individual brains — and the experiences those brains have had over a lifetime — are the same.

Deep phenotyping offers the criminal justice system the tools to improve public safety, identify low-risk offenders, and modify decision-making to reduce recidivism. Computational psychiatry can lead to what can be described as precision sentencing.

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gavel.

How to Reduce Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System

By Caroline Hinnenkamp

Racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system are well documented –– people of color are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and incarcerated.

Diversion efforts –– so named for their approach, which is to divert individuals away from the court process and instead offer opportunities for rehabilitation –– risk perpetuating these same racially disparate trends. Particularly if diversion programs have eligibility constraints based on prior records, people of color are more likely to be denied entry, because they are arrested and convicted at a higher rate than their white counterparts.

Historically, prosecutors tended to justify these constraints as mechanisms used to gauge an applicant’s capacity for rehabilitation, with recidivism (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend) reduction as the central goal of diversion. Diversion was an alternative offered to the lucky few deemed “eligible” or “deserving,” with the implication being that reoffenders have a criminal disposition that is not amenable to rehabilitation.

But programs that use these screening methods tend to overlook the underlying facts and circumstances that might have brought about the applicant’s priors, such as implicit bias in law enforcement or the over-policing of specific communities. Without additional safeguards, the seemingly neutral constraint of “priors” fails to account for relevant pre-existing conditions, and risks barring entry to applicants who might otherwise benefit from diversion.

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alcatraz, san francisco

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Efforts to Release People in Custody

By Phebe Hong

The first death of a federal inmate from COVID-19 occurred on March 28, at a prison in Oakdale, Louisiana. The inmate had been incarcerated for 13 years for a nonviolent drug charge. At least four other infected inmates have died at the same institution.

The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on prisons and jails, where proper social distancing is nearly impossible to maintain.

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