Public Health and Criminal Justice: Shared Root Causes


| By Jasmine D. Graves |

Today’s guest blog is by Jasmine D. Graves MPH, Special Assistant, Office of the Commissioner, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

As the public health community focuses on the root causes of ill health and inequities, there is a growing recognition that criminal justice, and the policies that inform our criminal justice system, are public health issues. The same structural inequities that contribute to poor overall health and well-being – economic insecurity, low education, inadequate housing, exposure to violence, and racism – also contribute to the disproportionate incarceration of low-income communities and communities of color.

In NYC, for example, the highest concentrations of premature mortality, poverty, and incarceration occur within the same neighborhoods – largely neighborhoods of color. In 2012, all cause and premature mortality rates for the 10 leading causes of premature mortality were 1.3 to 2.0 times higher in the very high poverty neighborhoods than in the low poverty neighborhoods . Additionally, young Black and Latino men – mostly from the same high poverty neighborhoods – are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, accounting for 81% of all persons arraigned within the last two years . Thus, when we discuss issues of incarceration in this city, we are also discussing issues of racial and income inequities in health.

Figure 1. GIS Maps illustrating geographic concentrations of poverty, premature mortality and incarceration in NYC

















Much of the discourse on the intersection of public health and mass incarceration has been centered on the disproportionate transmission of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, HCV, and various sexually transmitted diseases and infections within correctional facilities and the communities to which people return. All of these are very important issues to address; however, we need to simultaneously address the adverse impact mass incarceration has on the social determinants of health. The burden incarceration places on individuals, families and a neighborhood extends far beyond the transmission of infectious disease. A recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice outlines the following implications of incarceration

  • Stagnating economic mobility and widening income inequalities
  • Diminishing the educational opportunities of youth
  • Restricting access to essential social benefits
  • Creating housing insecurity/ exacerbating homelessness
  • Altering the demographic composition of communities in ways that fracture family structures
  • Removing political capital from communities

For more details on each of the outlined implications please review the report here.

In 2014, a task force convened by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, which included the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, released an action plan for the city to reduce unnecessary incarceration by creating alternatives to detention for persons grappling with mental illness and substance use.

Furthermore, a new report, due to be released on May 12, finds that college education for people who are incarcerated can help protect against many negative health outcomes and provide additional mental and physical health benefits to the individuals who receive college education while in prison, their children, and the communities they return to.

Graphic illustrations by Rosten Woo.

Graphic illustrations by Rosten Woo.

There are many opportunities to apply a public health perspective to criminal justice as we work to address the root causes of both, deepening our understanding of prevention and broadening our goals for health equity. It is important to bear in mind that social issues, such as criminal justice policy, are tightly linked to overall health and well being.

To access the full report, visit: on May 12, 2015.