…[A] new study suggests that concerns about being tracked by the criminal justice system can lead people to avoid medical institutions even in the absence of extraordinary circumstances. And it’s not just a person’s health that can be put at risk. Fears about surveillance may also have a negative effect on financial and educational outcomes.
The study, conducted by Sarah Brayne, a Ph.D. student at Princeton, examines whether contact with the criminal justice system—anything ranging from incarceration to being stopped on the street by a police officer—leads people to opt out of certain institutions, a concept she calls “system avoidance.” Specifically, her question was whether police contact would increase system avoidance with regard to “surveilling institutions”—places like hospitals or banks that collect important personal information and give the sense you’re being “put into the system.”
A perfect storm of data collection and aggressive criminal justice policies can help to create a society that’s toxic for social mobility.
Brayne analyzed two data sets: The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which surveyed adolescents in 1994 and 1995, and then twice more between the ages of 18-26 and 24-34; and the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, from which she examined four waves of data. Contact with the criminal justice system was divided into five categories: 1) no contact, 2) stopped and questioned, 3) arrested, 4) convicted, and 5) incarcerated. The surveilling institutions she examined included medical facilities, financial institutions, schools, and places of employment. As a comparison, Brayne examined contact with “non-surveilling” religious or civic institutions like churches and volunteer associations.
The results are revealing, disturbing, astounding—pick your adjective. Even after controlling for demographics, income, health, and behaviors like drug use or carrying a weapon, respondents who had any type of contact with the criminal justice system were 31 percent more likely than those who had no contact to not obtain medical care when they needed it. Even people who were merely stopped by police were 33 percent more likely to not seek medical care. On the other hand, contact with the criminal justice system was unrelated to engagement with non-surveilling institutions.
A similar pattern emerged with regard to financial and educational institutions. Having contact with the criminal justice system was associated with a 19 percent increase in the odds of not having a bank account, and a 31 percent increase in the odds of not being enrolled in school.
The multiple time points in the surveys also allowed Brayne to slice the data a second way and look at how individuals modified their behavior over time as their contact with the criminal justice system changed. She found that transitioning from no contact to contact with the system was associated with 48 percent higher odds of not obtaining needed medical care, and 90 percent higher odds of going from having a bank account to not having a bank account. In contrast, changes in contact with the criminal justice system had no statistically significant effect on involvement with non-surveilling institutions.
The findings tell a convincing story about how fear of the criminal justice system can lead to negative health, financial, and educational outcomes. And because contact with the system is more frequent in low-income and minority communities, these negative outcomes ought to hit them disproportionately hard. A perfect storm of data collection and aggressive criminal justice policies can help to create a society that’s toxic for social mobility.