Trauma is something many of us, directly or indirectly, experience at some point in our lifetime. For people with mental health and substance use disorders, and for those involved in the justice system, the odds of experiencing trauma are even greater.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines individual trauma as an event or circumstance resulting in physical, emotional, and/or life-threatening harm. The manner in which adults respond to and recover from trauma varies for a variety of reasons, including whether or not they experienced potentially traumatic events (aka, adverse childhood experiences) between the age of 0–17. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- 61% of adults have at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE)
- Females and several racial/ethnic minority groups are at a greater risk for experiencing four or more ACEs
- Childhood trauma significantly increases the risk of serious life-long behavioral and chronic physical health problems
- Annually, the economic and social impact of ACEs is in the billions
The Link Between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Criminal Justice Involvement
Some adults, especially those with multiple ACEs, may not be equipped with the social and emotional skills necessary to handle everyday situations, let alone traumatic or stressful situations. Unfortunately, the combination of multiple ACEs and minimal social and emotional skills increases the likelihood of individuals engaging in behaviors and activities that result in their involvement in the justice system. When these individuals become justice-involved, it is not uncommon for their trauma and stress levels to increase; sometimes, dramatically.
It is at this time when justice professionals may witness what they perceive as a cycle of destruction—individuals involved in the justice system repeating the same criminogenic behaviors that landed them there in the first place. In actuality, many of these individuals are simply trying to survive in the only way they know how. Without trauma-informed care and intervention, they are more likely to continue to engage in unhealthy behaviors and coping mechanisms, despite further justice involvement.
As reported by the National Institute of Corrections, The Association between ACEs and Criminal Justice Involvement, Part 1:
- 77–90% of women in correctional settings report extensive histories of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse as a child and as an adult
- Nearly half (44.7%) of men in correctional settings experienced physical trauma in childhood; 31.5% experienced physical trauma as adults
- There is a strong link between childhood abuse and:
- Early involvement in substance use and criminal activity
- Adult mental and behavioral health problems; specifically, substance use disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorders, and aggression/violence
Providing Trauma-informed Care Within the Justice System
Trauma-informed care is an evidence-based practice that has been utilized by medical, mental, and behavioral health professionals for decades to deliver effective care informed by the patient’s life experiences and an understanding that their trauma may impact their engagement, adherence to treatment, and health outcomes.
Similarly, understanding trauma, recognizing signs and symptoms, and providing trauma-informed care in a justice setting can prevent re-traumatization, reduce resistance, increase safety and program effectiveness, build resilience, and, ultimately, improve outcomes such as reduced recidivism and successful reintegration.
Approaching people with a trauma-informed lens, and with caution to not inadvertently cause additional trauma, builds your ability to provide a safe, honest, and productive setting where people who are justice-involved can thrive. When people feel empowered, supported, and trusted to make positive change they are better able to do so in a manner that complements the risk, need, and responsivity (RNR) model. The latter, responsivity, is an integral part of trauma-informed care and should be informed by the individual’s previous and current trauma, strengths and abilities, and learning style.
Working together, with the individual and other community partners, a plan can be developed that focuses on accountability, healing, empathy, and self-determination. While justice professionals are expected to hold people involved in the justice system accountable, there are non-punitive, strength-based, trauma-informed ways to do so that garner positive, long-term results. Examples include having the individual identify their priorities, discuss possible roadblocks and propose solutions for navigating around them, and advise on how to address setbacks in a way that holds them accountable while allowing them to continue on a path of recovery.
If and when setbacks do occur, the manner in which justice professionals respond should focus on understanding and redirecting, as opposed to blaming and punishing. It is during these setbacks that the words used and actions taken by justice professionals matter most. Instead of asking “why did you…” and going to a place of blame and punishment, justice professionals should seek understanding by asking “what happened…” and listening actively and empathetically to identify triggers and opportunities to redirect as well as to build coping mechanisms to prevent them from occurring in the future.
For many people who are justice-involved, connecting them with mental and behavioral health providers early on, and throughout their involvement with the justice system, will be core to their fulfillment of any legal obligations, as well as to their ability to tend to their basic needs. With these community mental and behavioral health connections established, individuals will also have long-term ties and support outside of the justice system, once they are no longer justice-involved.
These trauma-informed, collaborative actions create a balanced, interactive relationship that reinforces the power of honest communication and compromise while reducing resistance because the individual is more likely to discuss their inner conflicts and fears with you instead of being secretive, uncooperative, or combative. When we are actively engaged in identifying solutions that align with our needs and abilities, our resiliency is stronger, and we are more inclined to complete all actions necessary to meet the end goal.
To support justice professionals in their efforts to understand trauma, build resiliency, and improve outcomes, a new supplemental curriculum has been added to Carey Group’s Supervisor’s EBP BriefCASE. The Supervisor’s EBP Briefcase is an evidence-based practices booster curriculum that supervisors deliver to their staff. It was developed in response to a growing recognition that skills must be continually reinforced through booster training and coaching, and that supervisors are best positioned to provide this mentoring. The new Supervisor’s EBP BriefCASE Supplemental Set: Trauma and Resilience Series is a supplemental set to the original 18-module series and includes five additional modules that provide information, assessments, and tools necessary to effectively integrate trauma-informed practices into justice settings.
To purchase the Trauma and Resilience Series, and for assistance with strategic thinking and planning required to assess your organization’s readiness to change, ability to manage the change, and to evaluate the progress made in achieving the desired change, contact Carey Group or purchase the series here.
Carey Group (Consulting and Publishing) is a national consulting and publishing firm that equips justice system and behavioral health professionals with knowledge, skills, and tools that improve the lives of clients. We make this possible by providing an array of staff training, organizational consulting services, and evidence-informed intervention tools. Contact us today to learn more about our evidence-based training and consulting services.