The Latest Public Health Risk: Our Criminal Justice System

Sugar. Diet Soda. Fast Food. Sitting all day.  These are just a few of the items that have been studied and determined to be public health risks. But New York City’s Health Department has identified a new threat: our criminal justice system.

After studying the data available to them, the researchers determined that even minor interactions with our justice system can cause long-term physical and mental damage. Twenty-Nine percent of New Yorkers, around 1.9 million people have been questioned or frisked by the police. 577,000 people have been physically abused by the police. Unfortunately, the majority of those stopped by the police are minorities. Of the 8,4000 people held in New York City Jails in 2018, 90% were African-American or Latino.   If interactions with the police and our justice system are detrimental to your health, and the majority of those interactions are with African-Americans and Latinos then they are being disproportionally affected.  Those who have been harassed or abused by the police have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, drug abuse, and mental health issues. 27% of those who have been formerly incarcerated report having poor mental health; in comparison the national rate for mental illness is 19% of the population.

New York City’s Health Department study follows a similar study done by San Franciso’s Health Commission in March of this year, and by Seattle, who gave the health department complete access to its juvenile justice system in 2017.  Though these studies are important and hopefully groundbreaking in terms of funding and public awareness, minority communities have already known the dangers of our justice system for generations. Not only do we know that they pose a threat to our health, but to our very lives. America has the highest prison population in the world, with 2 million people currently behind bars. These studies highlight the negative effects of incarceration not only for the prisoner, but for their family members as well.  Family members left on the outside now have to worry about their loved one in prison, send them money, and visit them in prisons often in very isolated areas that require money to make the trip.

The irony of the justice system posing a health risk should not be lost on us. Our justice system was “ideally” designed to bring justice to those who have been wronged. But when your justice system is causing more wrongs than rights, you have a problem. In a big city such as New York, it is easier to study and understand the damages caused by negative interactions with the police or the courts; what about the rural parts of the country? I’m so happy that these studies are being done, but I’m sad that we live in a world where it’s even necessary.

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