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No harm done

Written by Deborah Feldman, School of Law

“Do no harm” is a well-known principle in the medical world. When it comes to law and public health, assistant professor Leo Beletsky thinks the same guidelines should apply.

“Laws are often heralded as interventions designed to ‘cure’ this or that ‘social ill,’ but little work is done to assess whether these claims are ever realized,” says Beletsky, who joined the School of Law this winter with a joint appointment at the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. “Many laws are poorly designed to achieve their aims and, as a result, some may do more harm than good.”

Beletsky’s work, which aligns with Northeastern’s long tradition of public health advocacy, focuses on the impact of law on health. What’s a bit unusual, however, is that in his research on legal and policy questions, Beletsky draws on tools typically used by epidemiologists to evaluate the impact of public health programs.

His interdisciplinary approach is contributing to a growing trend in science that considers the influence of policies and the criminal justice system as “structural” drivers of health.

Given Northeastern’s emphasis on interdisciplinary education and research, he says, “I was drawn to the university’s commitment to grappling with some of today’s most complex empirical questions and finding innovative solutions that harness that complexity.”

Beletsky’s academic path explains this interdisciplinary outlook. As a graduate student in public health, he worked on a study looking at the impact of syringe decriminalization in Rhode Island, which was designed to slow the HIV epidemic among injection drug users. Observing that police practices did not reflect the change in the law, Beletsky interviewed patrol offers to understand what caused the disconnect between the “law on the books” and the “law on the streets.”

“I found that many officers didn’t know about the reform,” he recalls. “Those who did refused to go along with it because they saw it as counterproductive.”

His interest in understanding the impact of laws on health led to a job at Temple Law School. In a self-styled co-op program, he continued to do research while pursuing his law degree.

Beletsky went on to a prestigious fellowship — more frequently reserved for scientific researchers than lawyers — at the Yale Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS. Working with epidemiologists, clinical psychologists and physicians studying the spread of HIV helped him hone his research skills. Beletsky also advocated using a public health lens to examine human rights abuses against vulnerable groups, viewing these events as something that can be prevented, monitored and addressed through proven interventions.

In his subsequent faculty position in the Division of Global Public Health at the University of California-San Diego’s School of Medicine, he designed interventions to improve public health while trying to curb human rights violations in places ranging from Baltimore, Maryland, to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

“My enthusiasm for this new position goes far beyond Northeastern University’s traditional public health advocacy strengths,” says Beletsky. “There are so many exciting opportunities for interdisciplinary research with colleagues from the School of Law, Bouvé and other departments. Having learned by doing, I can truly appreciate and applaud the university’s unique commitment to experiential education.”

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