Restorative Justice Diversion as a Structural Health Intervention in the Criminal Legal System

González, Thalia | January 1, 2023

A new discourse at the intersection of criminal justice and public health is bringing to light how exposure to the ordinariness of racism in the criminal legal system—whether in policing practices or carceral settings—leads to extraordinary outcomes in health. Drawing on empirical evidence of the deleterious health effects of system involvement coupled with new threats posed by COVID-19, advocates and academics have increasingly called for race-conscious public health-driven reforms to carcerality in the United States. Recognizing the significance of health to carceral reform, the initiation of a health justice grounded lexicon in criminal justice has opened the doorway to new and dynamic scholarly engagement. This Article initiates a two-pronged interdisciplinary project at the nexus of criminal law, public health, and restorative justice. First, it seeks to make visible an often-unnamed recursive theoretical framework—health inequities influence carcerality and carcerality influences health inequities. Second, it recognizes a gap in research, public discourse, and policy and specifically intervenes to examine restorative justice diversion in a manner that neither the legal nor public health fields have before. More precisely, it locates restorative justice diversion in the framework of structural health interventions. Synthesizing multiple strands of research, this Article departs from the traditional understanding of upstream criminal justice interventions by identifying and mapping not only direct health outcomes of participation in restorative justice diversion but also how such interventions in the criminal legal system may alter the larger social context by which health disparities emerge and persist. This project’s central aims are to: prioritize diminishing exposure to the criminal legal system; expand non-carceral measures for safety, accountability, community healing, and wellbeing; and, consequently, substantively impact racial health inequities.