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.”