Research shows around 61 percent of the general population has had at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), a potentially traumatic event that occurs to people younger than 17, and that number is closer to 97 percent for people in prison.
ACEs are linked to negative health outcomes, lifelong instability, and increased risk of future violent victimization and perpetration, but when criminal legal system leaders develop crime reduction strategies, they often focus only on deterring crime or appealing to rational choice.
To reduce crime and improve safety, leaders should start by working with other decisionmakers to understand and address ACEs by substantively supporting people who are incarcerated, investing in trauma-informed resources, and connecting people to these resources at their first contact with the criminal legal system.
The effects of ACEs extend well beyond childhood
Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; neglect; and household challenges, such as family conflict or divorce, substance abuse, incarceration, and exposure to violence or mental illness, are all examples of ACEs. Traumas frequently result in stress, and exposure to constant stress can lead to an overstimulated amygdala, underdeveloped hippocampus, and subsequently, an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, which influences decisionmaking.
As a result of decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, people with many traumatic experiences likely have impaired impulse regulation (PDF), making it hard or impossible to self-regulate. Further, exposure to violence also increases the risk of perpetration of violence.
People who repeatedly experience trauma also have an increased likelihood for developing mental illness. Difficulties in neural and cognitive functions, such as those associated with ACEs, have often been found in young people who commit crimes or engage in delinquent activity.
It can be difficult for people who’ve experienced trauma to distinguish between safe and dangerous situations, which increases their likelihood of poor decisionmaking and antisocial behaviors, which can be linked to criminality. In one study, people who had committed criminal offenses reported nearly four times as many adverse events in childhood than an average adult male. Moreover, with each additional ACE youth report, the risk of violence perpetration increases by 35 to 144 percent.
Communities of color, especially Black communities, already have elevated risks of violence exposure, mental health issues, and difficulties accessing resources because of years of policies that supported, implemented, and in some cases, exacerbated structural and cultural racism. Because of this, children of color experience more ACEs than other children. Insufficient resources, including quality education, food, and housing, increases their risk of trauma, making them more susceptible to the negative outcomes associated with ACEs.
Black people are overrepresented in the criminal legal system because of discriminatory policies and practices. When combined with an increased risk of police-initiated contact, harsher penalties, and exposure to violence from within the system, the prominence of ACEs among Black young people can worsen this overrepresentation in the criminal legal system.
Without intervention, many young people who’ve experienced ACEs enter the criminal legal system and eventually, jail or prison. Their trauma is often ignored, leading to insufficient mental health support and education on trauma’s effects. The prison environment itself can be traumatizing, further damaging the psyche, potentially leading to increased chances of recidivism.
ACEs victimize young people, leaving them in need of trauma intervention and support—not criminal legal system involvement.
How can decisionmakers better support people harmed by ACEs and trauma?
Evidence shows that supporting young people who‘ve experienced ACEs can help protect them against not only violence but also further victimization. Recognizing that many people who cause harm are also victims themselves can help system leaders identify strategies to address trauma’s negative, long-lasting effects. Limiting contact with the system and increasing contact with mental health professionals or other supports also improves individual outcomes and community safety.
To better support people harmed by ACEs and reduce crime, decisionmakers such as criminal legal system actors, mental health professionals, and child protective services can consider the following steps.
- Increase availability of resources, and ensure they’re accessible
Addressing ACEs as soon as possible and equipping parents and caregivers with needed tools and resources can make a difference. High-quality schools with trauma informed teachers, parenting classes, and mental health supports to teach emotional competence can help.
Funding specialized programs, like nurse home-visiting programs, can decrease the risk of child maltreatment. Ensuring communities of color have access to well-funded programs is especially pertinent.
Policymakers can invest in and support policies that strengthen education systems, stable housing opportunities, quality employment options, and mental health supports to give children stability throughout their development.
- Adopt a mental-health-informed court system
Attorneys well-versed in the detrimental effects of ACEs, including their disproportionate effect on Black young people, are best suited to support clients. When attorneys know to screen for past trauma, they can advocate for their clients and work with different criminal justice actors, such as prosecutors, judges, and probation officers, to ensure they are referred to needed services instead of placed in incarceration, where traumas may be exacerbated.
- Create alternative programs aimed at healing trauma
The goal of the carceral system is to change behavior through punishment. But this response fails to recognize the needs related to experiencing trauma.
Restorative justice programs, while generally used to repair the harm caused to victims, can also help heal and support people who have experienced and caused harm and address posttraumatic stress disorder. Juvenile justice circles have already started recognizing the benefits. Such programs could help reduce the number of Black people within the system and may better serve their needs.
Instead of dehumanizing people for behavior that may stem from unresolved trauma or placing them in a system focused on punishment, criminal legal system leaders can take steps to better address the needs of people who are incarcerated. Doing so can help improve their outcomes and reduce crime to create a safer, more equitable world.