Ourselves Black Spotlight Profile: Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform
Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor
John Crawford. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Three unarmed black men killed by law enforcement. Even in death, they are still inspiring activism and advocacy on behalf of other men, women, and young people like them. We would expect to hear outcries from many different sectors of society as we still are today. Those in the criminal justice advocacy sector, social workers, other law enforcement, Black Lives Matter activists, educators, and others have taken up the mandate to do something about the untenable situation of interaction between black Americans and law enforcement. But there is a group that you might not have expected to take up this issue; but they are equally as active and determined to see change not only for the sake of the black community but also for the sake of the greater common good. Meet Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform (PfCJR).
In 2014, Dr. Nzinga Harrison, Chief Medical Officer for Anka Behavioral Health and co-founder of PfCJR, became deeply disturbed about the senseless killings of black men by police officers. A mother of two sons, she felt the inner tension and emotion intensify and reach a boiling point when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot that November by Cleveland police. She needed an outlet by which to express her sadness and anger so she started writing social media posts and was surprised by the responses from people reading her writing. It wasn’t long before her friend, colleague, and eventual co-founder of PfCJR, Dr. Edjah Nduom reached out to her in solidarity. Now she laughs as she remembers the late hour he contacted her, but the more they talked, the more they both knew they had to get actively involved to help change the experiences and outcomes of interactions between law enforcement and black and other minority communities. The way she remembers their tipping point conversation, Dr. Nduom said to her that they should start ‘something like’ Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform; she responded with, “Not something like, but exactly like” that! On May 11, 2015, the organization was born.
PfCJR is now a fully-formed 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with an advisory board, 700-800 physician (about 70%) and non-physician allied members (roughly 22%), medical students (estimated at 8%), as well as strategic partnerships to help it get the work done. The goal is to raise awareness and educate diverse stakeholders on the bi-directional relationship between criminal justice system involvement and negative health outcomes. Dr. Harrison describes the group’s unique approach as the application of a physician mindset that is trained to deal with illness from a five-point model of: 1) primary prevention—stopping the onset of illness; 2) assessment; 3) diagnosis; 4) intervention; and 5) secondary prevention—keeping illness from returning.
This healthcare perspective informs work done by four task forces created to fine-tune the organization’s infrastructure around four core issue areas. Each core issue is actively and strategically aligned to address specific health outcomes as follows:
Mental Health focuses on the decriminalization of addiction disease and mental disorders
Targeted health outcomes (THOs): having a substance use or mental health disorder increases the likelihood of a violent encounter with law enforcement which in turn increases the likelihood of trauma and manifestations like posttraumatic stress disorder
Juvenile Justice exists to divert at-risk youth from the punitive orientation of the criminal justice system to treatment-oriented mental health systems
THOs: young people who have had traumatic experiences and/or mental health disorders have increased contact with law enforcement, and those contacts in turn exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions
Correction Healthcare advocates for adequate medical care for inmates while incarcerated and also upon reentry
THOs: long-term incarceration shortens lifespan and increases the rate of and risk for developing chronic illness for inmates versus the general population; the stressful environment of incarceration accelerates disease progression
Violence Prevention aims to decrease violent interactions between the community and law enforcement
THOs: the number of people being killed during encounters with police continues to increase
The work of the task forces is carried out primarily through advocacy by allied members and through partnerships with like-minded reform groups. Presentations are an important tactic, and while the group hasn’t yet done a deep dive into policy, it has had significant success in influencing legislation in its home state of Georgia. Dr. Sarah Vinson, Chair of the Juvenile Justice task force, has testified at Georgia legislative hearings regarding a set of laws being considered which would increase the number of crimes for which juveniles could be charged and tried as adults. Dr. Vinson’s testimony on the neurobiology of the brain and detrimental health consequences of placing children and teens in ultra-stressful and often violent adult prison environments. Dr. Harrison hopes for more positive influence like this.
One of PfCJR’s most high-visibility partnerships is with Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ). The two groups are working together to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18; stop the housing and inhumane treatment of youth in adult correctional facilities; and support the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, the federal law that protects young people while in custody of law enforcement. Marcy Mistrett, CFYJ’s CEO, believes that PfCJR is uniquely positioned to impact criminal justice reform because, “medical professionals are not weighing in enough on [the] criminal justice system”, and “they always bring racial justice into this work and don’t need me to explain the systemic reasons why so many kids of color are over represented. The parallel with public health is huge!”
Dr. Harrison is also grateful for the contributions of PfCJR’s allied members, too, people like Endsley Real, a clinical social worker who is working on an idea to provide social work resources to police departments. Ms. Real has seen firsthand the devastating health effects she and the organization desire to change.
My career has primarily been working with people with substance use disorder and people with mental illness. I watched both of these populations get incarcerated because of behaviors related to their disorders. As a result they have so many systems of our society break down for them. … Due to having limited support, a criminal history, and unemployment they can’t maintain stable housing or seek medical care. … So these issues feed off of one another in a circular fashion and the criminal justice system is at the center of it because we use this system to warehouse these people rather than treating their disorders.
Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform is definitely worth watching as it continues to educate legislators, law enforcement, government agencies, and community members on the evidence-based links between negative encounters with the criminal justice system and damaging health consequences. For more information on its work, or to join as a member, go to the website: http://www.pfcjreform.org/ or contact them using the email form on the website. Also, follow them on social media: