Public Health and Criminal Justice


I. Introduction

II. The Need for Collaboration

III. Criminal Justice as an Intervention

IV. Important Public Health Studies

V. Defining Public Health

A. Physical Health

B. Mental Health

C. Social Health

VI. Conclusion and Bibliography

I. Introduction

While some issues were gaining interest in fields of public health and criminal justice, three of the five leading causes of premature death— suicide, homicide, and injury—had received far less attention from public health researchers than criminologists (Rosenberg & Fenley, 1991). All three causes were strongly correlated with violence. In response, then- Surgeon General C. Everett Koop (1986) expanded the mission of public health and dedicated new resources toward the prevention and treatment of violence. By doing so, violence was now conceptualized as a public safety and community health issue, rather than principally a law enforcement matter. By 1991, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control was housed within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Medical Association had initiated practices designed to address family violence. Collaborative partnerships between criminal justice and public health increased, with the hope of pooling resources and creating synergy. In short, the field of criminal justice had experienced a paradigm shift and had incorporated the perspective of public health into everyday operations.

The inclusion of a new perspective was facilitated by the need for criminal justice to reach beyond its borders. The “nothing works” ideology had reached its peak following Martinson’s (1974) assessment of 231 rehabilitation programs, which found no significant changes in offender recidivism. Also, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration had been dissolved and its models of operation criticized as ineffectual and obsolete. Thirty years later, former Law Enforcement Assistance Administration officials now involved in the Office of Justice Programs reflected that policies should always be “based on the knowledge that criminal justice agencies alone cannot solve crime problems” (U.S. Department of Justice, 1996, p. 1).

To address threats to public safety, practitioners and academicians who had previously embraced the traditional criminal justice models accommodated epidemiological models into the study of crime and deviancy. Today, the paradigm shift experienced by criminal justice is evident. Criminologists routinely conduct surveillance of geographical conditions to identify risk factors associated with criminality and devise population-based interventions that prove to be evidence based. Practitioners now respond to “contagious” adverse events, and criminal justice syllabi include mental illness, drug abuse, and correctional health, among other public health topics. The purpose of this research paper is to link the fields of public health and criminology by showing their similar interests, methods, and goals.

The shift of the criminal justice system toward a public health perspective requires further explication. First, the notion of criminal justice as a public health issue is presented within the ecological context of mandatory sentencing, rapid incarceration, and the provision of services to an increasingly sicker and older U.S. population. Key stakeholders and administrators are cognizant that criminal justice institutions are responsible for providing interventions that directly impact neighboring communities. This includes addressing the chronic health needs of recidivists and tracking their migration among the criminal justice, public health, and community systems. Also included is the adoption of central epidemiological tenets that include surveillance, screening and testing, therapy, medication, and education.

Second, this research paper introduces readers to several classic public health experiments that have documented the social determinants of health (Marmot &Wilkinson, 1999). Specifically, the Alameda Study, the Whitehall Studies, and the Black Report highlight the relationship between the lived environment and trajectories of health.

Third, the concept of health is discussed using the accepted World Health Organization definition of “physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (World Health Organization, 1946). This broad definition includes a range of diseases, conditions, and behaviors that threaten public safety. This section is divided into the tripartite scheme of physical health, mental health, and social health, and their relevancy to the criminal justice system is explained. The Chicago Safe Start project is presented as an example of a synergistic partnership between criminal justice and public health designed to address community violence. Last, the paradigm shift within criminal justice is discussed and future directions are summarized.

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