Melissa Willoughby is on the editorial board of BMC Public Health. She specializes in the health of marginalized population groups with a focus on violence, criminal justice and gender, in relation to SDG 5, gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls and SDG 16, the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies.
Welcome to our Members of the SDG Editorial Committee Blog collection. We hear from the members of the editorial board of the BMC series of magazines whose work is geared towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Here you will find further articles from this collection, grouped with the tag “Members of the SDG editorial team”.
Violence is a complex issue that remains a public health priority around the world. Violence is not evenly distributed across society, but disproportionately affects people who are confronted with health and social inequalities. People who experience health and social inequalities such as homelessness, unemployment, mental illness and substance use disorders are also more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system.
My PhD thesis explores how we can prevent deaths and injuries from violence in adults and adolescents who have had contact with the criminal justice system in Australia. My work is primarily related to SDG 5, gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls, and SDG 16, promoting peaceful and inclusive societies. The prevention of violence and deaths from violence is set out in three goals in order to achieve these goals. Goal 5.2 aims to eradicate all forms of violence against women and girls, Goal 16.1 aims to reduce deaths from violence and Goal 16.2 aims to end all forms of violence against children.
A key challenge for this research is that experiences of violence by those who have had contact with the criminal justice system are rarely recognized as a health problem. It does so despite the fact that violence was made a public health priority by the World Health Organization nearly two decades ago and the health of those who have had contact with the criminal justice system was recognized as an important part of public health.
If we want to keep the promise of the United Nations “Leave no one behind”, then we must view the violence experienced by this population as a serious health problem that requires targeted, evidence-based prevention efforts. My research has shown that people who have contact with the criminal justice system are at a far greater risk of dying from violence than the general population in Australia.
Ignoring the violence experienced by this population ignores the link between health, violence and the involvement of the criminal justice system. Many adults and young people who have experienced incarceration have been victims of violence before they had contact with the criminal justice system. The vast majority (70-90%) of women incarcerated have been victims of violence, most commonly intimate partner and family violence. For many of these people, the victimization of violence was linked to the reasons for their participation in the criminal justice system. For example, after becoming victims of violence, people may turn to substance use as a coping strategy and then be charged with substance use or possession. Young people can leave their homes and become homeless after experiencing domestic violence, which in turn can increase the likelihood that they will have contact with the criminal justice system.
We need to question and address the stigma that people who have had contact with the criminal justice system experience long after they have come into contact with the system. People who have had contact with the criminal justice system are part of the community and do not exist apart from it. Even incarcerated inmates typically only spend a relatively short time in prison before being released back into the community. Therefore, improving the health of this population group and reducing the violence they experience is likely to be important in order to reduce population health inequalities and achieve SDGs 5 and 16.
People who have had contact with the criminal justice system must be recognized as a priority group for violence prevention. In addition, the health and social inequalities that lead to deaths and injuries from violence, as well as the involvement of the criminal justice system, need to be addressed.
The effects of violence on health and behavior need to be considered when people come into contact with the criminal justice system. Our criminal justice systems need to be aware of trauma and include trauma-informed responses, including redirecting to more appropriate services, such as mental health services and domestic violence. Without this we could further cement a cycle of disadvantage and violence in this population.