Trauma Informed Juvenile Justice
53 Pages Posted: 24 Jun 2016 Last revised: 30 Jun 2016
Date Written: June 12, 2016
The juvenile justice system fails to account for the astounding rates of childhood trauma exposure amongst system-involved youth. Trauma, an experience threatening to life, safety, or well-being, overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. The experience of trauma is so pervasive amongst juvenile justice youth that a recent study found that 93% of children in an urban detention facility had experienced at least one traumatic event in the past year, and for more than half of those youth the trauma they reported was witnessing violence. When left untreated, or treated without targeted trauma-specific therapies, trauma sufferers are vulnerable to commit offenses as children and as adults. The stakes are high: untreated trauma can turn people into ticking time bombs bound to respond to triggers and misinterpret events, sometimes responding violently, even to mundane events in their daily lives. The good news is that when trauma is identified and treated with appropriate trauma-specific methods, child trauma sufferers in particular can heal, overcome their trauma, and grow in positive ways.
The juvenile justice system has yet to catch up with contemporary understanding of trauma’s impact on offending and the latest best practices for treatment of trauma. Specifically, the juvenile justice system fails to accurately identify trauma and often employs counter-productive responses to juvenile offending, such as removal from the home, programming and treatment that is general rather than trauma-specific, and the over-use of detention. Poor youth of color, the most marginalized among us, are the children who suffer the greatest from the current failure to incorporate a trauma-focused response in the juvenile justice system and are subjected to incarceration at unreasonably high rates. Incarceration itself is traumatic, it exacerbates pre-existing trauma, and it is counterproductive to long-term community safety.
This Article proposes four trauma-informed reforms: (1) create a presumption of trauma, (2) mandate trauma identification of youth in the juvenile justice system, (3) implement trauma-informed procedures, and (4) utilize trauma-informed dispositions, which will dramatically reduce our over-reliance upon incarceration in favor of safe-settings in the community. Endowed with trauma-focused reforms, the juvenile justice system is poised to identify and appropriately respond to the many traumatized children who come to its attention early enough to make a difference, capitalizing on the incredible potential for growth and resilience children possess, realizing the paramount goal of rehabilitation, promoting long-term community safety, and working to eliminate the incarceration of children.
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