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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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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