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Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Criminal Justice Reform Is Health Care Reform

Haber LA, Boudin C, Williams BA.
Published online December 14, 2023.

Here is an excerpt:

Health Care While Incarcerated

Federal law mandates provision of health care for incarcerated persons. In 1976, the US Supreme Court ruled in Estelle v Gamble that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain,’” prohibited under the Eighth Amendment. Subsequent cases established that incarcerated individuals must receive access to medical care, enactment of ordered care, and treatment without bias to their incarcerated status.

Such court decisions establish rights and responsibilities, but do not fund or oversee health care delivery. Community health care oversight, such as the Joint Commission, does not apply to prison health care. When access to quality care is inadequate, incarcerated patients must resort to lawsuits to advocate for change—a right curtailed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, which limited prisoners’ ability to file suit in federal court.

Despite Eighth Amendment guarantees, simply entering the criminal-legal system carries profound personal health risks: violent living conditions result in traumatic injuries, housing in congregate settings predisposes to the spread of infectious diseases, and exceptions to physical comfort, health privacy, and informed decision-making occur during medical care delivery. These factors compound existing health disparities commonly found in the incarcerated population.

The First Step Act

Signed under then-president Trump, the First Step Act of 2018 (FSA) was a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill designed to reduce the federal prison population while also protecting public safety. The legislation aimed to decrease entry into prison, provide rehabilitation during incarceration, improve protections for medically vulnerable individuals, and expedite release.

To achieve these goals, the FSA included prospective and retroactive sentencing reforms, most notably expanded relief from mandatory minimum sentences for drug distribution offenses that disproportionately affect Black individuals in the US. The FSA additionally called for the use of evidence-based tools, such as the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs, to facilitate release decisions.

The legislation also addressed medical scenarios commonly encountered by professionals providing care to incarcerated persons, including prohibitions on shackling pregnant patients, deescalation training for correctional officers when encountering people with psychiatric illness or cognitive deficits, easing access to compassionate release for those with advanced age or life-limiting illness, and mandatory reporting on the use of medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder. With opioid overdose being the leading cause of postrelease mortality, the latter requirement has been particularly important for those transitioning out of correctional settings.

During the recent COVID-19 pandemic, FSA amendments expanding incarcerated individuals’ access to the courts led to a marked increase in successful petitions for early release from prison. Decarcerating those individuals most medically at risk during the public health crisis reduced the spread of viral illness associated with prison overcrowding, protecting both incarcerated individuals and those working in carceral settings.