Trauma-Informed Criminal Justice: Part One of a Four-Part Series


Christi Smith
Resident Senior Fellow, Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties

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Trauma is a nearly universal experience among individuals in the criminal justice system, including victims, witnesses, the accused or convicted, and criminal justice professionals. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), trauma results from “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening.” This experience changes neural pathways, impacts daily functioning and can trigger “survival brain,” wherein people have difficulty assessing risk and engaging in appropriate coping skills.

Victims and witnesses, often referred to as the “forgotten players” in the judicial process, experience direct and vicarious trauma. Unresolved trauma is associated with maladaptive coping strategies, including aggression, the abuse of drugs or alcohol, and later system involvement.

Compared to the general public, inmates experience significantly more violence, trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the severity of which is associated with higher rates of arrest and recidivism. Incarceration can exacerbate existing symptoms or birth new ones, a concept referred to as Post-Incarceration Syndrome (PICS).

Criminal justice professionals also experience disproportionately higher rates of vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue and burnout than the general public. The judicial process and various professionals’ interactions with victims and witnesses can also impart trauma and reduce the likelihood that they will report future crimes, be cooperative with police and prosecutors, seek support resources or appear credible on the stand. As a result, there is a growing effort to educate and advocate for the adoption of trauma-informed and trauma-responsive criminal justice policies and practices. These approaches improve victim outcomes, decrease inmate misconduct, reduce recidivism, increase public safety, and decrease occupational stress and burnout.