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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Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration: A Hidden Problem

Goodwin-Headshot11By Michele Goodwin

Mass incarceration’s invisible casualties are women and children.  Too often, they are the forgotten in a tragic American tale that distinguishes the United States from all peer nations.  Simply put, the U.S. incarcerates more of its population than anywhere else in the world–and by staggering contrast.  While the U.S. locks away over 700 men and women for every 100,000, here are comparable figures from our peer nations:  England (153 in 100,000), France (96 in 100,000), Germany (85 in 100,000), Italy (111 in 100,000), and Spain (159, in 100,000).  The U.S. accounts for less than 5% of the globes population, yet locks away nearly 25%.  Sadly, this has grave social, medical, psychological, and economic consequences.

Congressional Briefing on Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration

In a recent essay, published in the Texas Law Review, I explained that, the population of women in prison grew by 832% in the period between 1977-2007—nearly twice the rate as men during that same period. More conservative estimates suggest that the rate of incarceration of women grew by over 750% during the past three decades. This staggering increase now results in more than one million incarcerated in prison, jail, or tethered to the criminal justice system as a parolee or probationer in the U.S. The Bureau of Justice Statistics underscores the problem, explaining in a “Special Report” that “[s]ince 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled, up 131%,” while “[t]he number of children with a father in prison has grown [only] by 77%.” Read More