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Yes, criminal justice is a health care issue

Campaign for a Just RI: When Justice Works

On a hot sunny afternoon in June a group of judges gathered in a parking lot off Elmwood Avenue. It was an unusual event to launch an unusual campaign. In front of a bus at the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority headquarters, this group of judges from various courts across the state unveiled a public awareness campaign called When Justice Works. Its purpose—to challenge Rhode Islanders to answer difficult questions about how those who are justice-involved experience systemic racism in our court system.

Using bus banners, digital ads inside the buses, and social media, When Justice Works is an initiative of the RI Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts. It was established by Chief Justice Paul Suttell last year in response to the protests triggered by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. Suttel declared at the event, “Our goal is to make sure that our house is in order.”

“What does a healthy community look like?” asked Sarah Martino, deputy director of the Center for Health and Justice Transformation (CHJT), who partnered with the judicial Committee as part of their Campaign for a Just RI, which has been funded by the Rhode Island Foundation.

Mavis Nimoh
Mavis Nimoh

“Our criminal justice system is a symptom of an unhealthy citizenry,” said Mavis Nimoh, executive director of CHJT. “Access to education, jobs, and health care are all determinants of health. Yet 60-80 percent of our prison population is illiterate, addicted, and/or unemployed, forcing them to make decisions that others would not make.”

Looking through a public health lens, CHJT examines equity in criminal justice to understand how our justice system works—from arrest through adjudication, incarceration, and re-entry. By reframing the debate about fairness within our criminal justice system as a conversation about the health of our communities, It connects our justice system to other systems that have a direct bearing on the social determinants of health. By revealing those hidden connections, the Center brings policymakers and advocates who otherwise would not be included into the discussion..

Through their home at Lifespan and their connection to Brown University, CHJT has access to researchers and medical professionals who can provide expertise and data. But at the same time, the Center has strong direct-service partnerships at the state and community level—with organizations such as the Nonviolence Institute, Amos House, Reentry Campus/Formerly Incarcerated Union, DARE, and others who are key stakeholders in grassroots policy change. This allows the voices of those most impacted by the criminal justice system to be heard.

“I guarantee you know someone who is justice involved. This is about my neighbors, my neighborhood. Most people think they are not in a position to do anything about this, but we must start thinking as a community rather than as a series of individual households, and what inclusion in this idea means.”

- Sarah Martino, deputy director of the Center for Health and Justice Transformation