The Symposium was a deep dive into one pathway to assuring the conditions for optimal health and wellbeing by addressing the health-harming impact of the criminal legal system. Panelists described historical laws and policies that have resulted in inequitable outcomes for people of color and other economically and socially marginalized populations. Panelists also discussed re-envisioning resource allocation to better support the needs of impacted communities but also cautioned against the dangers of shifting resources (and associated power) without safeguards to prevent many of the problems that currently exist, including a lack of accountability and transparency. Panelists also talked about the challenges of actually implementing legal and policy reforms, including knowing where to start—with large scale transformation, with incremental improvements, or somewhere in between—all while avoiding the trap of well-intentioned but ineffective interventions.
This convening took place at a time that seems to be in some ways a lull, a period of reflection and intentional contemplation of the path forward. The COVID-19 pandemic was (and is) looming large; at the same time, early outrage at the disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations seems to have waned. As Ed Yong noted in his article How Did This Many Deaths Become Normal?, Americans have accepted both a threshold and a gradient of death, accepting that some lives are valued less. Indeed, the Articles in this Issue all address the fact that policy interventions are historically and currently based on the devaluation of the lives of people of color, people with low incomes, and other socially vulnerable groups.
This convening also took place a year and a half after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, two years after the murder of Breonna Taylor and a full year after more than 200 agencies and organizations declared racism a public health crisis. These events sparked a racial justice movement and a nationwide reckoning over police reform. However, those early discussions reimagining policing and public safety have encountered a backlash. For example, the movement to “defund the police” has turned into “fund the police,” with jurisdictions restoring and even increasing public safety budgets in 2021 after decreasing them in 2020.
Defunding the police was not just about divestments from law enforcement, it was also about investments in alternatives to policing. Throughout this convening, panelists explored what alternatives to policing can look like, identified the pressure points for change, and examined how making wellbeing the end goal can lead to policy solutions that are health affirming, can value all individuals and populations equally, and can eliminate group-based disparities in health and wellbeing—in other words, solutions that can achieve equity. These same ideas are explored in this Issue’s Articles.