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.