30th April 2024

The impact of Scotland’s justice system on public health is to be explored in a new research programme – with extensive input from the most affected communities.

The University of Strathclyde is leading the £1 million study, aimed at improving the health of disadvantaged communities, which will examine how health, crime, criminalisation and victimisation intersect.

It will also investigate how policy commitments to ‘public health policing’ are put into practice and experienced, and will identify promising options for improving health in these communities.

Scotland’s average life expectancy has been in decline for the past three years. While COVID-19 has been one factor, other prominent causes include drug-related deaths. The country had 1197 suspected drug-related deaths in 2023 and the rate, which includes deaths which occur in prison, is one of the highest in western Europe.

Evidence shows that people who are taken into custody, or subject to supervision or post-release licences, often have extensive health needs which are not always met by current health and care systems. This means that they may not get the support they need, leading to worsening health.

However, there has been little research into the effects of the justice system on people’s health in Scotland, and as a result, little is known about the role the justice system plays in the health problems in marginalised communities.

Working alongside people who live and work in these communities, including those who have had contact with the justice system, the researchers will combine existing evidence with new research to help develop potential approaches for health improvement. Part of the work includes exploring how new technologies might support improved access to health support for people in prisons and who have recently been released. They will also examine how police are changing the ways they work for community wellbeing, consider the impact of living in areas with high crime rates, and assess what happens to people’s health when they leave prison.

Professor Kat Smith, of Strathclyde’s Centre for Health Policy, the lead researcher in the project, said: “With new data showing that health inequalities are widening in Scotland, partly as a result of health outcomes getting notably worse for Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities, there is an urgent need for research that works with affected communities, as well as relevant organisations in policy and practice, to try to develop viable solutions.

“Our approach will draw from insights in public health, community justice, sociology, social policy and criminology and, crucially, will involve working closely with affected communities.”

Researchers from the University of Strathclyde, the University of Glasgow and the Edinburgh Napier University will collaborate on the project, which is being funded by the Scottish Government’s Chief Scientist Office from its Applied Health Research Programme call.

Professor Beth Weaver, Professor of Criminal and Social Justice at Strathclyde, said: “Embedded in and threaded throughout this multi-layered programme of research is a commitment to inclusion, participation and impact. The appetite to better understand how health inequalities and contact with the justice system intersect across different stakeholder groups, even in the early stages of developing this programme, has been overwhelming and encouraging in equal measure.”

The study also involves working closely with a wide range of organisations in the public and community-based sectors, including the Scottish Community Development Centre, Public Health Scotland, the Scottish Government, Police Scotland, local Health & Social Care Partnerships, Community Justice Scotland, the Scottish Prison Service, HM Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland and the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit.

This press release was first published on the University of Strathclyde’s website. 



Notes to Editors:

  1. Co-investigators in the study are: Professor Alistair Fraser, Professor Ellen Stewart and Professor Nasar Meer (all University of Glasgow); Professor Liz Aston and Dr Katrina Morris (both Edinburgh Napier University).
  2. The Chief Scientist Office is part of the Scottish Government Health Directorates. Our vision is to support and increase the level of high-quality health research conducted in Scotland. This is for the health and financial benefits of our population so that Scotland is recognised globally as a ‘come to place’ for health science. See our current strategy.
  3. The Universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow, and Edinburgh Napier University, are, along with the Universities of Edinburgh and Stirling, members of The Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research. The Centre aims to produce research that informs policy and practice and advances our understanding of justice.