The Critical Link Between Health Care And Jails

Health Affairs March 2014 cover

If the jail and health care systems can work collaboratively, both public health and public safety can be improved.

As a group, jail-involved individuals, which the authors define here as people with a history of arrest and jail admission in the recent past, carry a heavy illness burden, with high rates of infectious and chronic disease, as well as mental illness and substance use. Because these people have tended to also be uninsured, jail frequently has been their only regular source of health care. Three thousand three hundred local and county jails processed 11.6 million admissions during the twelve-month period ending midyear 2012. The Urban Institute estimated as much as 30 percent of some local corrections budgets is allocated to inmate health care services. This investment is largely lost when people are released back into the community, where they typically do not get treatment. For people with untreated substance use or mental illness, this issue reaches beyond public health, because without treatment, these people are at heightened risk of cycling into and out of jail for low-level, nonviolent offenses.

This article offers eight policy recommendations to build a continuum of care that will ensure that jail-involved people get the care they need, regardless of where they reside. With the expansion of Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, there is now a critical opportunity to bring the jail-involved population into the mainstream health care system, which benefits the health care and criminal justice systems and society at large.