Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.
“Environmentalism is now equated with social justice and civil rights,” wrote professors Robert D. Bullard and Glenn S. Johnson in the Journal of Social Issues almost 20 years ago. They remind readers that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on an environmental and economic justice mission in support of striking Black garbage workers. “A growing body of evidence reveals that people of color and low-income persons have borne greater environmental risks than society at large.”
Today, people will walk out of schools, factories, and corporations in 150 countries to demand an end to the age of fossil fuels and a solution to the climate crisis. Strikers recovering from the hurricane in Bermuda and those who live near oil drilling in Ecuador have grappled with more immediate and dramatic environmental harm than those in wealthier areas, but they are united by the understanding that climate change will ultimately harm everyone.
In the U.S., people in the criminal system often bear the brunt of climate change in a more acute way than others. The Daily Appeal has discussed failures to evacuate prisoners before major storms, the extreme heat prisoners often endure during summer months, and one rare victory in Kentucky where plans to build a federal prison were put on hold because of the environmental destruction it was expected to cause.
Less discussed is the fact that environmental harms often make involvement in the criminal system more likely to begin with. Exposure to lead has been linked to criminal behavior, especially among young people. “When environmental lead finds its way into the developing brain, it disturbs neural mechanisms responsible for regulation of impulse. That can lead to antisocial and criminal behavior,” said Herbert L. Needleman, the professor of psychiatry and pediatrics whose research about the effects of lead on brain development was one of the main reasons that the federal government banned lead in the 1980s. “The brain, particularly the frontal lobes, are important in the regulation of behavior,” said Dr. Needleman. “Exposure to lead, at doses below those which bring children to medical attention, is associated with increased aggression, disturbed attention, and delinquency. A meaningful strategy to reduce crime is to eliminate lead from the environment of children.”
Bad criminal policy has proved disastrous for the environment, and climate change likewise drives conditions that lead to crime. So if we’re serious about tackling the roots of inequality and crime, we need to tackle environmental issues. In 2011, professor Robert Agnew argued that the effects of climate change, which include flooding, negative health effects, food and water shortages, loss of livelihood, migration, and increased social conflict, will lead to more crime. “Climate change may foster a range of crimes at the individual, corporate, and state levels,” he wrote in an academic paper. “These crimes include individual acts of violence and theft of the type that are illegal in virtually all states; corporate crimes such as environmental pollution and bribery, which are illegal in many states; and acts of state aggression that violate international law.” When it comes to individual crime, Agnew focuses in particular on the erosion of social support systems like states and families, and increased opportunity and motivation to commit crimes.
We see similarities in the drivers of bad policy on climate and law enforcement. In the irrational, narrow thinking that undergirds bad climate policy, we can see the hallmarks of bad criminal policy. A desire for short-term economic gain spurs companies to hide the environmental harms they are causing until forced to change their methods. A desire for short-term political gain prompts officials to play on fear and vengeance by promoting draconian criminal policies, at the expense of their community’s fiscal, moral, and safety interest.
Bullard and Johnson do not simply bemoan the absence of environmental justice: They lay out an environmental justice framework and, in so doing, offer a potential path forward toward criminal justice. Environmental justice adopts a public health model of harm prevention, they write, and the framework “allows disparate impact and statistical weight or an ‘effect’ test, as opposed to ‘intent,’ to be used to infer discrimination.”
Imagine, for a moment, if merely showing that the death penalty was disproportionately doled out to Black people was enough to invalidate a Black man’s death sentence, as the Supreme Court declined to do in 1987. This week, it was reported that in Manhattan, where less than half the residents are people of color, 93 percent of people arrested and arraigned are people of color. Imagine if that revelation were enough to overhaul policing and prosecution practices. What if the justified fear of police abuse, especially among young Black men, were sufficient cause to reconsider police-community interactions? And what if those efforts focused not on retribution against the worst offenders but rather on preventing harm going forward? The next time a criminal reform advocate suggests that the solution is to deal less harshly with “nonviolent low-level drug offenders,” while ignoring the rot at the core of our system, it may be worthwhile to follow the environmental justice framework and suggest tackling these issues at their root.