Toward Creating a Trauma-Informed Criminal Justice System

Recognition of the high rates of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder among justice-involved individuals is vital.1  It is estimated that 85 percent of women in correctional settings have an early experience of physical and or sexual abuse.2  Other reports estimate even higher lifetime experience of traumatic events and show little difference between genders on the prevalence of trauma and abuse. In fact, in a recent study of people participating in jail diversion programs across the country both women and men, almost universally, reported a history of significant traumatic experience prior to incarceration (95.5% and 88.6% respectively). 3

“Trauma-informed” may be a concept that you’ve heard of and “trauma-informed care” may be a practice you’re already implementing in your organization, agency or community. An understanding of trauma and its effects, as well as the principles of being trauma-informed are key for criminal justice system professionals. Being a trauma-informed criminal justice system professional means understanding trauma and its manifestations and approaching all interactions through a trauma-informed lens. Being trauma-informed can help increase safety for you, the person with whom you are interacting and the community as a whole. Most simply, being trauma-informed is just doing your job well.

Many of us have been impacted by trauma across the lifespan and can identify at some level with the trauma experienced by others. By understanding how the effects of trauma can manifest behaviorally and may be triggered by interactions in many situations and settings that are commonplace in the criminal justice system, that information can be used to deescalate tricky situations and get people the support and assistance they may need.

So what does it mean to be trauma-informed?

According to SAMHSA’s National Center for Trauma-Informed Care, “Trauma-informed care is an approach to engaging people with histories of trauma that recognizes the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledges the role that trauma has played in their lives.”  Trauma-informed care can be implemented in all systems – the criminal justice system, health care system (including behavioral health), education system, employment and vocational system, etc. A goal of trauma-informed care is to avoid re-traumatizing an individual. Since we do not know all of the lived experiences of everyone we encounter, it is best practice to always approach a situation with a trauma-informed lens and assume that individual has experienced some sort of trauma, particularly in the criminal justice arena. By assuming that an individual may have a trauma history, we can groom ourselves to always take a trauma-informed approach when dealing with at-risk populations.

Being trauma-informed is also recognizing what trauma is. Common traumatic stressors include physical abuse, sexual abuse, surviving or witnessing a natural disaster, witnessing or experiencing violence or other traumatic events, serving in combat or being a victim of war, or experiencing historical trauma. Sometimes, trauma is repetitive, such as recurring abuse as a child. Other times, trauma is a one-time incident, such as witnessing a brutal shooting. With historical trauma, trauma is multi-generational and is experienced by a specific cultural group.  We see the manifestations of historical trauma among various populations, but most notably Native Americans/First Nation People, African Americans, Immigrants, people living in poverty, and genocide survivors and refugees and their families. These manifestations can impact peoples’ perceptions of situations, intent, trust, and more. A trauma-informed criminal justice system professional is able to recognize and consider how a trauma history may impact an individual’s behavior or attitude in a given situation and tailor responses accordingly.

Policy Research Associates, through its SAMHSA’s GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation, has developed a trauma-informed training curriculum for criminal justice professionals. To learn more about this training and the application of trauma-informed principles in criminal justice settings, visit the GAINS Center’s website and PRA’s How Being Trauma-Informed Improves Criminal Justice Responses page.

Sample PRA Training Clips

In this clip, Jackie Massaro demonstrates how criminal justice professionals can adjust their responses to become more trauma-informed.

This clip demonstrates how systems, such as criminal justice, have the power to re-traumatize the individuals that they are serving.

1 Davidson, L., & Rowe, M. (2008). Peer support within criminal justice settings: The role of forensic peer specialists. Delmar, NY: CMHS National GAINS Center.
2 Gillece, J.B. (2009). Understanding the effects of trauma on lives of offenders. Corrections Today.
3 Steadman, H.J. (2009). [Lifetime experience of trauma among participants in the cross-site evaluation of the TCE for Jail Diversion Programs initiative]. Unpublished raw data.

Criminal justice, GAINS, Training & Technical Assistance, Trauma    

The views expressed by the blog post author are their own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Policy Research Associates, Inc.

2 comments on “Toward Creating a Trauma-Informed Criminal Justice System

    • Thanks, Javelin! We’ve adjusted the closed captioning on both videos, so hopefully you will have a better experience viewing them! Thanks for watching!

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