Column: Public health and systemic racism are on the ballot in prosecutor elections

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The intertwined pandemics of racism and coronavirus have been deadly for Black Americans, showing clearly that our biased criminal justice system and our racial health disparities are closely connected.

The latest protests sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others are public displays showing that people are angered by a criminal justice system that steal breath, steal health, and steal life from Black Americans. As public health professionals, we understand that the issues of mass incarceration and police violence are public health issues that disproportionately impact the health of Black Americans. To improve health for Black Americans, we must vote to change these systems.

In the Aug. 4 primaries and November elections, Michiganders will have the opportunity to help transform racist systems and reduce health disparities by voting for county prosecutors that promise to reduce mass incarceration and police violence.

A “Health in All Policies” approach (endorsed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization) encourages us to confront health inequities from all policy areas, including those not typically seen as health-related. This approach would encourage us to seek ways to redress mass incarceration and police violence as public health issues by seeking change in the policies implemented by a prosecutor’s office.

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In Michigan, county prosecutors are the chief law enforcement officer in the county and shape decisions about which crimes get prosecuted, which charges are filed and thus what types of punishment are mandated. Prosecutors have “prosecutorial discretion” or the ability to decide whether or not to charge someone with a crime or several crimes. This includes the decision of whether or not to criminally prosecute a police officer who has abused power.

How are mass incarceration and police violence public health issues? Research shows that without mass incarceration policies, U.S. life expectancy between 1981 and 2007 would have increased by five additional years. People who have been incarcerated are more likely to suffer from a variety of health conditions and young adults whose father was incarcerated are more likely to have high cholesterol, asthma, migraine, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety.

Police violence directly causes injury and death: 6,295 men were killed by police between 2012 and 2018 and police violence is one of the leading causes of death for young Black men. Now some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks are in jails and prisons.

Given these statistics — and because incarceration has not been shown to improve public safety — to improve health not only in the Black community, but within society in general, we need to reduce mass incarceration and police violence. While much recent energy has focused on defunding or reforming the police, elected county prosecutors also play a key role in mass incarceration and police violence.

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In upcoming elections (and as engaged citizens after the elections), voters in Michigan have the opportunity to demand that their county prosecutors value Black lives and health and make policy changes to the criminal justice system. They can demand that prosecutors end cash bail — a practice most industrialized nations ban — which needlessly jails people and has a long history of criminalizing poverty.

They can demand that prosecutors stop targeting Black residents with higher charges and sentences. Voters can also demand decriminalization of minor offenses and that prosecutors direct resources towards pre-arrest diversion which connect people to community-based programs that help address root causes of crime (i.e. poverty, lack of housing, drug addiction, etc.).

These measures would ensure that people who have been charged can remain employed, remain connected to family members, and receive the help they need to promote health and prevent future recidivism.

While county prosecutors cannot fully transform a biased and harmful criminal justice system, electing prosecutors who support policies that recognize the humanity of people accused of a crime and support ending mass incarceration and police violence would be an important step for improving health. As we seek to address the inequity and racism embedded within our social and economic systems, we must seize innovative ways to change the system.

It is critical that voters pay attention to the policies of their local prosecutor, utilize resources that unpack candidates platforms for the upcoming elections, and vote to show that Black lives matter.

Paul J. Fleming
Paul Fleming is an Assistant Professor in Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. He received his Ph.D. in Health Behavior with a graduate minor in Sociology from the University of North Carolina and his M.P.H. in Behavioral Sciences and Health Education from Emory University. He has previously worked as a Community Health Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua.
Melissa S. Creary
Melissa S. Creary is an Assistant Professor of Health Management and Policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Her research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of public health, science and technology studies, and medical anthropology. She studies the social, cultural, ethical, political and historic tensions of sickle cell disease (SCD) in both the United States and Brazil.