Introducing the BMC Series SDG Editorial Board Members: Melissa Willoughby
Melissa Willoughby is an Editorial Board Member of BMC Public Health. She specializes in the health of marginalized populations with a focus on violence, criminal justice and gender, relating to SDG 5, achieving gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls and SDG 16, promoting peaceful and inclusive societies.
Violence is a complex issue that remains a public health priority globally. Violence is not equally distributed across society but disproportionately impacts people who face health and social inequities. People who experience health and social inequities, such as homelessness, unemployment, mental illness and substance use disorders, are also more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system.
My PhD research examines how we can prevent deaths and injuries from violence among adults and young people who have had contact with the criminal justice system in Australia. My work primarily relates to SDG 5, achieving gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls and SDG 16, promoting peaceful and inclusive societies. Preventing violence and deaths from violence is specified in three targets to achieve these goals. Target 5.2 aims to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls, target 16.1 aims to reduce deaths from violence and target 16.2 aims to end all forms of violence against children.
If we are to uphold the United Nations pledge of ‘leaving no one behind’, then we must consider the violence experienced by this population as a serious health issue in need of targeted, evidence-informed prevention efforts. My research has established that people who have contact with the criminal justice system have a risk of dying from violence that is far greater than the risk experienced by the general population in Australia.
Ignoring the violence experienced by this population ignores the connection between health, violence and criminal justice system involvement. Many adults and young people who have experienced incarceration were victims of violence before they had contact with the criminal justice system. The vast majority (70-90%) of women in prison have been victims of violence, most frequently intimate partner and family violence. For many of these people their violence victimization was connected to the reasons for their criminal justice system involvement. For example, people may turn to substance use as a coping strategy after being a victim of violence and are then subsequently charged with using or possessing substances. Young people may leave their home and become homeless after experiencing family violence, which in turn may increase the likelihood that they have contact with the criminal justice system.
We need to challenge and address the stigma that people who have had contact with the criminal justice experience, which continues long after their contact with the system. People who have had contact with the criminal justice system are part of the community and do not exist separately from it. Even those who are incarcerated usually only spend a relatively short period of time in prison before being released back into the community. As such, improving the health of this population and reducing the violence they experience is likely important to reducing health inequities at the population level and achieving SDGs 5 and 16.
People who have had contact with the criminal justice system need to be recognized as a priority group for violence prevention. Additionally, the health and social inequities that are drivers of death and injuries of violence, as well as criminal justice system involvement need to be addressed.
The impact of experiencing violence on health and behavior must be considered when people have contact with the criminal justice system. Our criminal justice systems need to be trauma-informed and include trauma-informed responses, which includes diversion to more appropriate services, such as mental health and family violence services. Without which, we may be further entrenching a cycle of disadvantage and violence in this population.