School of Population Health

In profile with Tony Butler: As a society we could and should do better by our citizens

Image - Tony Butler

Professor Tony Butler leads the Justice Health Research Program (JHRP) at UNSW School of Population Health. The team of researchers are working on a range of projects involving adult and juvenile prisoners, and community-based offenders. Here Professor Butler shares what the program is focused on, what motivates his work, why he joined the School and more. 

The Justice Health Research team work on offender-focused projects in violence perpetration, domestic violence, mental illness, sexual health, bloodborne viruses, and deliberative work the justice space, and use a range of research methodologies such as cross-sectional surveys, text mining and qualitative inquiry. 

The team’s research has influenced offender health service delivery, prison health policies, international guidelines, police management of domestic violence events, and parliamentary inquiries, and has inspired the UNSW courses, Public Health and Corrections, and Inside the Criminal Mind.   

Professor Tony Butler studied psychology, quantitative methods in the behavioral sciences, and information technology in the United Kingdom where he worked mostly in the areas of mental health, drug and alcohol, and child protection. After moving to Australia in the early 1990s, Professor Butler worked in variety of roles in health including the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission, a rural public health unit, and the Olympic Planning Unit before joining the NSW Public Health Officer Training Program. 

What attracted you to join the UNSW School of Population Health? 

Adult and juvenile prisoners, and community-based offenders endure some of the worst health outcomes in society and this has implications for the health of the wider community. UNSW School of Population Health provides a good fit for the Justice Health Research team’s work given the need for a strong prevention focus, and with incarceration now accepted as a public health issue.  

What has inspired your focus on justice health and working in public health? 

When I was part of the Public Health Officer Training Program, I was exposed to a fascinating range of areas and issues relevant to public health, but none was more fulfilling than being asked to conduct Australia’s first epidemiological survey of prisoner health in NSW, which became the focus of my PhD and an enduring research interest ever since. 

More broadly, I am motivated by a strong belief in redressing injustice and that most people in the justice system are products of extreme inequality and disadvantage - as a society we could and should do better by our citizens. 

In your opinion, what are the biggest barriers to improving health globally? 

Poverty and inequality, coupled with corporate greed and tax avoidance are the biggest challenges to a better world. 

How is the Justice Health Research Program tackling health inequities? 

All of our work focuses on a highly marginalized population group comprising of some of the most disadvantaged and stigmatized in society. By working with this population, and contributing to better their health and equity outcomes, we can contribute to a better society. 

How has the Justice Health Research Program been involved in the COVID-19 response? 

We have done work on how COVID-19 could be used to stimulate a decarceration strategy which was published in the BMJ; and we are also using police data to examine changes in prevalence of domestic 
violence and mental health following COVID-19. 

What’s next for the Justice Health Research Program?

In the justice space, it is often hard to plan - you have to move with the issues and take opportunities when they arise.  We have several big initiatives underway, such as a survey of prisoners’ sexual health, using text mining to generate domestic violence insights, further examination of the role of mental health treatment in the prevention of reoffending, and continuing our work on using a biosocial approach to violence reduction which all have great potential for impact. 

What advice would you give to those considering a career in research? 

Make sure to get some real-world experience and do a variety of projects until you find the one for you.

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Examples of recent news from the Justice Health Research Program include:

Research published in Lancet Public Health outlines the health research priorities of people in prison according to people in prison themselves, with mental health ranked the most pressing – read more.

The Australian Institute of Criminology published the following: 

More about Professor Tony Butler

Professor Butler and his team joined the School from The Kirby Institute in 2020 – read more.

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UNSW School of Population Health