In his warning more than a century ago, Friedrich Nietzsche cautioned against trusting those who have a strong impulse to punish. Unfortunately, it seems that the impulse to punish has only grown stronger in the U.S. criminal justice system. With over 9 million arrests and approximately 2.3 million incarcerations every year, there has been a 500% increase in the prison and jail population since 1980. This rise in incarceration has numerous consequences, including negative impacts on public and individual health. Contact with the criminal justice system has been associated with hypertension, depression, substance abuse disorders, poor mental health, obesity, and accelerated aging.
Recent findings published in the Journal of Criminal Justice shed light on how contact with the criminal justice system, particularly probation and probation combined with incarceration, disproportionately affects the health outcomes of Black Americans. The authors of the paper argue that Black Americans are unequally exposed to the criminal justice system in the U.S. Furthermore, when placed on probation, they often lack the economic and social resources needed to fulfill the responsibilities tied to probation.
The research was conducted by Michael Niño, an assistant professor, and his co-authors from the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the U of A, including Casey T. Harris, Alexia Angton, and Meredith Zhang (now at Cal State LA). The study utilized data from The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, also known as Add Health, which surveyed 90,000 adolescents in 1994. The survey focused on their health behaviors and interactions with the criminal justice system. Over time, the survey was narrowed down to a representative pool of 20,000 students who were periodically reinterviewed until 2019.
The findings from this study were clear: Black Americans consistently reported poorer health outcomes compared to their White and Hispanic counterparts following contact with the criminal justice system. Additionally, probation was found to have the most significant impact on lower self-rated health and chronic conditions. Probation is highly stressful, with constant concerns about paying fees, meeting requirements, and navigating other stressors tied to social life. Despite the prevalence of probation, little is known about its health consequences.
Moving forward, Niño and his colleagues plan to further investigate the long-term effects of different types of contact with the criminal justice system from early adolescence into adulthood. They aim to explore the role of race in ongoing contact and understand how it impacts an individual’s health.