Addressing Health Disparities in the Criminal Justice System

ByJim Parsons, Vice President and Director of Research, Vera Institute of Justice 

Incarcerated persons are three times more likely to experience chronic, acute, and behavioral health problems than the general population.1 These persons have limited access to health care both inside facilities and in the communities to which they are released. A historical lack of coordination between justice and health agencies exacerbates these issues even further. Consequently, people with such problems routinely fail to get the treatment they need. Research shows that incarcerated persons with substance use and mental health needs often find themselves caught in a revolving door of repeated arrest and incarceration, and effective and targeted treatment made possible by information-sharing can address health disparities, reduce costs, and lower recidivism rates. Astrology

We, at the Vera Institute of Justice, recognized these challenges. In the summer of 2013, we sought to increase information-sharing between justice and health authorities nationwide with the Justice and Health Connect (JH Connect) website. JH Connect, with support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, provides a number of resources aiming to increase agencies’ abilities to share data between community health and justice systems in a confidential, legal, and ethical way.

So how does this help criminal justice agencies? Establishing an information-sharing initiative with health agencies can mean early identification of behavioral health needs that require treatment. It also provides the ability to use health information to make intelligent decisions about which people are eligible to participate in drug courts, receive alternatives to incarceration, and enter specialized treatment programs.

Information-sharing between public health and correctional health can yield a range of financial benefits as well. Treating people with serious mental illness in jails and prisons is expensive. Information-sharing can reduce costs and save significant amounts of public resources.2 We understand that criminal justice agencies need to maximize the use of scarce resources. Many jurisdictions recognize the potential for data-sharing to improve services, enhance individual outcomes, and reduce duplication of effort for this vulnerable population. However, a lack of information on ways to overcome barriers to information-sharing means that the examples of successful initiatives are few and far between.

The JH Connect team has come across examples of successful projects demonstrating the value of information-sharing between justice and health systems. Los Angeles County spends substantial resources caring for over 3,500 county jail inmates with chronic mental health needs each day, many of whom would be better cared for in community health systems. In September 2014, Los Angeles County announced the Third District Diversion and Alternative Sentencing Program, an initiative designed to divert seriously mentally ill, non-violent offenders from incarceration and place them into San Fernando Valley Mental Health Services’ 90-day treatment program. Those qualifying for the pilot program will be placed in temporary housing and offered support services and treatment.

JH Connect offers resources for agencies considering deploying their own information-sharing initiatives. The JH Connect Toolkit provides a framework for planning, implementing, and sustaining interagency collaboration between justice and health systems. The toolkit’s four modules detail the actions needed to get information-sharing initiatives off the ground. It also contains real-world examples of jurisdictions that have adopted effective approaches to address information-sharing challenges, accessible summaries of the research literature, and examples of best practices.

JH Connect also offers a resource library, a searchable database of policy briefs, legal memos, templates, and webinars. The site is a repository for existing resources and guidance from experts in the field to help make information-sharing initiatives successful.

If you belong to a criminal justice agency interested in implementing an information-sharing initiative or would like to learn more, visit

If your community is in need of assistance in creating an information-sharing initiative or if you know of a community that would benefit from these types of interagency collaboration, please contact BJA NTTAC at


1 Ingrid A. Binswanger et al., “Health Disparities and the Criminal Justice System: An Agenda for Further Research and Action,” Journal of Urban Health 89 (2011): 98-107.

2 Jeffrey Swanson et al., “Costs of Criminal Justice Involvement Among Persons with Severe Mental Illness in Connecticut,” Psychiatric Services 64 (2013): 630-637.