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Study Sheds Light on How the Justice System Can Affect Physical, Mental Health

handcuffs lying on top of a set of fingerprints
Photo credit: Bill Oxford.

For Immediate Release

New research from North Carolina State University finds that being convicted of a crime is associated with a decline in one’s physical health, even if the conviction doesn’t lead to jail time. The study also confirms previous work finding that being arrested is associated with adverse mental health outcomes, even if an individual isn’t ultimately charged with a crime.

“Many people often think of low-level interactions with the justice system as being inconsequential,” says April Fernandes, author of a paper on the work and an assistant professor of sociology at NC State. “For example, if someone is arrested and released, it’s seen as ‘no harm, no foul.’

“We’re learning that there can be significant mental health effects from low-level contacts. And there can be significant physical health effects even when convictions are associated with probation or fines, rather than jail time.”

For this study, Fernandes looked at data from a nationally representative sample of about 9,000 young people who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, focusing specifically on data submitted between 1999 and 2010. The study participants were between the ages of 18 and 32.

Specifically, Fernandes evaluated self-reported physical and mental health assessments to determine whether there was a change in reported health status associated with justice system contact. Fernandes looked at four types of contact for study participants: being arrested; being charged; being convicted; and being sentenced to jail time.

“People reported increases in depression and stress across the continuum of contact, from arrest to jail time,” Fernandes says. “That’s consistent with previous work.

“And we knew that jail time affects physical health, for a host of reasons. But the fact that convictions were associated with physical health effects is particularly interesting. It would be worth exploring what drives those outcomes in greater detail.”

The paper, “How Far Up the River? Criminal Justice Contact and Health Outcomes,” is published in the journal Social Currents.

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Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“How Far Up the River? Criminal Justice Contact and Health Outcomes”

Author: April D. Fernandes, North Carolina State University

Published: Aug. 24, Social Currents

DOI: 10.1177/2329496519870216

Abstract: Research has shown negative health outcomes from felony imprisonment. The conditions that create and exacerbate physical and mental health outcomes on the felony side—exposure to disease, lack of health care, and stress—are reflected in other less severe forms of criminal justice contact. Given that the low-level contact has grown along with prison incarceration, the health effects of less severe forms of criminal justice contact should be investigated. Using 10 waves from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 ([NLSY97), this project explores the impact on self-reported physical and mental health from the continuum of contact, namely, an arrest, conviction, and jail sentence. The results show that low-level forms of contact negatively affect both physical and mental health throughout the continuum of contact. The role of the type of conviction is investigated, providing a more nuanced understanding of how points of contact operate on essential outcomes such as physical and mental health.

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