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Low-Level Contact With the Law More Harmful Than Thought

New research shows that being convicted of a crime may lead to a significant decline in one’s physical health, even if the conviction doesn’t lead to jail time.

The study, published in the journal Social Currents, also confirms earlier work showing that being arrested is tied to negative mental health outcomes, even if the person isn’t ultimately charged with a crime.

Previous research has shown adverse health outcomes from felony imprisonment. Given that low-level contact with the criminal justice system has grown along with prison incarceration, the health effects of less severe forms of criminal justice contact should be investigated as well.

“Many people often think of low-level interactions with the justice system as being inconsequential,” says paper author April Fernandes, an assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. “For example, if someone is arrested and released, it’s seen as ‘no harm, no foul.'”

“We’re learning that there can be significant mental health effects from low-level contacts. And there can be significant physical health effects even when convictions are associated with probation or fines, rather than jail time.”

For the study, Fernandes looked at data from a nationally representative sample of about 9,000 young people, ages 18 to 32, who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997. She focused specifically on data submitted between 1999 and 2010.

Specifically, Fernandes looked at self-reported physical and mental health assessments to determine whether there was a change in reported health status associated with justice system contact. Fernandes looked at four types of contact for study participants: being arrested, being charged, being convicted, and being sentenced to jail time.

The conditions that create and worsen physical and mental health outcomes in felons — exposure to disease, lack of health care, and stress — are reflected in other less severe forms of criminal justice contact.

“People reported increases in depression and stress across the continuum of contact, from arrest to jail time,” Fernandes says. “That’s consistent with previous work.”

“And we knew that jail time affects physical health, for a host of reasons. But the fact that convictions were associated with physical health effects is particularly interesting. It would be worth exploring what drives those outcomes in greater detail.”

The estimated arrest rate for the U.S. in 2017 was 3,251.5 arrests per 100,000 inhabitants. Around 29.5 percent of the U.S. adult population has a criminal record.

Source: North Carolina State University

Low-Level Contact With the Law More Harmful Than Thought

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2019). Low-Level Contact With the Law More Harmful Than Thought. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 27 Sep 2019 (Originally: 27 Sep 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 27 Sep 2019
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