Skip to main content

Some young people are exposed to the criminal legal system every day. It’s bad for their health

Studies on how exposure to the criminal legal system impacts individual’s health have generally focused on adults, with young people left out of the literature.

However, a paper published early this year in the American Journal of Public Health by researchers at UC Berkeley School of Public Health and Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University paper focuses on young people of color, particularly Black- and Brown-identified people. The paper reviews existing literature to analyze how policy decisions—such as disproportionate surveillance of Black and Brown neighborhoods by police, the increased prevalence of law enforcement in schools, and zero-tolerance policies for weapons and drugs—may have exposed these young people to the criminal legal system with negative health impacts.

“We found that while this literature is growing rapidly, it is primarily focused on direct interactions with law enforcement officers and largely examines health implications among adults,” said Catherine Duarte, a Ph.D. student in epidemiology at Berkeley Public Health and one of the paper’s authors.

The papers’ authors say there is a need for more public health research on how the legal system creates health inequities between young people as a necessary step to create appropriate institutional-level interventions.

“There are fewer studies that examine the implications of policy decisions for inequities in how young people are exposed to the criminal legal system and what that means for their health. In other words, public health research has yet to deeply explore how systems and structures may shape these outcomes,” Duarte said.

In their review of the existing literature, the authors note that exposure to the legal system has been linked to adverse health effects, low birth weight for the children of those exposed, increased risk of physical harm or death, and increased life course morbidity and mortality. They also note young people who experience structural marginalization—including those who are economically disenfranchised, homeless, LGBTQ, disabled, and undocumented—are at greatest risk.

The study authors stress that exposure to the legal system is a constant presence and stressor for marginalized young people. “The criminal legal system is present in schools, communities, and homes, all spaces young people move through daily, and it operates at all levels, including the institutional level, with health-harming consequences. We need to be thinking about this in our research and in our interventions,” Duarte said.