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July 26, 2016

The Potential to Advance Health Care in the US Criminal Justice System

Author Affiliations
  • 1Dr Kendig is former medical director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and retired assistant surgeon general for the US Public Health Service.
JAMA. 2016;316(4):387-388. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.7651

An unprecedented confluence of medical, sociologic, and political factors has created a unique opportunity to advance health care in the US criminal justice system. In this Viewpoint, important developments supporting this potential opportunity are discussed.

During the past several years, numerous states and the federal government have drafted and, in many jurisdictions, enacted major legislation that will fundamentally change their criminal justice systems and will lead to significant reductions in incarcerated populations. Although the laws vary, some typical provisions include a reduction in mandatory minimum sentences; diversion of nonviolent drug offenders to treatment programs; expanded parole eligibility; and more lenient sanctions for parole violators.1 The strong bipartisan support for these legislative initiatives across the United States is an unusual sociopolitical phenomenon and suggests that a sustainable change may soon be reached in reversing the nation’s long era of mass incarceration. Current US Department of Justice statistics reflect gradual movement in this direction. The number of persons residing in US jails and prisons declined from 2 296 400 in 2007 to 2 224 400 in 2014.2