Addressing rising trauma rates in the criminal justice system: The role of community supervision and trauma-informed interventions

By Dr. John Watts

In recent years, the criminal justice system has witnessed a steady increase in individuals exposed to trauma. Trauma rates are high among the general population but even higher among the justice-involved population. Moreover, poverty, community violence and incarceration can compound the offender’s risk factors.

Individuals exposed to trauma are overrepresented in the courts, correctional facilities and under community supervision. In response to the prevalence of trauma in the criminal justice system, some juvenile correctional facilities throughout the United States have incorporated trauma-informed interventions when dealing with at-risk youth. Along similar lines, some female correctional facilities have found that trauma-informed correctional care (TICC) promotes healing and ensures safety for the inmates and correctional staff. [1]

Although the United States prison population is declining, individuals under community supervision are gradually rising. In a report published by the Prison Policy Initiative, there is an estimated 3.7 million adults are under some form of community supervision. Thus, increasing community supervision officers’ awareness of trauma may lower recidivism rates and improve overall outcomes. 

Definition of trauma

According to the Substance Abuse Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA), trauma can be defined by an event or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening, which has a lasting adverse effect on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. [2] Traumatic events can include sexual abuse, the loss of a family member, losing a job, bullying, exposure to community violence and incarceration, just to name a few.

Traumatic events can cause a wide range of physical and emotional reactions in individuals. Physical and emotional reactions to trauma in criminal justice settings can make offenders hypervigilant, easily frightened and avoid certain places. Consequently, the effects of trauma can be widespread and persistent throughout an individual’s lifetime without therapeutic intervention.

How trauma can influence criminal behaviors

When untreated, trauma effects can result in a cascade of problematic behaviors in justice-involved individuals.

Several studies have found a correlation between childhood traumatic events and involvement in the criminal justice system. As justice-involved individuals transition into adulthood, they oftentimes develop poor coping strategies to avoid traumatic events or memories. Diminished coping strategies can result in substance use and abuse, risk-seeking behaviors, and constantly being in a “fight or flight” mode, which could lead to further involvement in the criminal justice system.

Within the context of community supervision, such behaviors can generate higher technical violation rates, revocation proceedings and remands to custody. Therefore, by understanding the impact of trauma and how it influences criminal behaviors, community corrections officers can intervene using evidence-based interventions.

Risk, protective and resilience factors   

Since the early 1990s, America’s criminal justice system has adopted a public health approach when addressing criminal behaviors through the use of risk assessments. Most noticeably, research found that targeting criminogenic risk factors can significantly lower recidivism. [3] Risk factors include the individual’s attitudes and beliefs, family, peers, and neighborhoods. Risk factors can also be static and dynamic in nature.

On the contrary, protective factors can mediate the effect of exposure to risk factors, resulting in reduced incidence of problem behavior. [4] Protective factors are family, education, pro-social activities, and employment. Resilience refers to protective factors that are internal and external to the individual. Hence the more protective factors an individual possesses, the more resilient he/she is in negotiating high-risk situations. [5] Therefore, understanding how the offender’s risk and protective factors interact with their environment can impact their level of resilience.     

Strategies that increase resilience in high-risk offenders

Community corrections officers play a critical role when addressing the prevalence of trauma in the criminal justice system. Office meetings, home visits, random urines and evidence-based interventions can reduce risk factors while increasing protective factors. Given the high rates of trauma among the correctional population, here are some strategies that could promote resilience in the highest-risk offenders:

  • Using validated risk assessments to determine risk factors while exploring opportunities to increase protective factors.  
  • Using positive reinforcement and affirmations to increase protective factors.
  • Assisting offenders in obtaining gainful employment and housing will increase resilience.
  • Mindfulness activities, exercise and healthy eating.  
  • Connection to the community (i.e., community service, volunteer work).
  • Role-playing with offenders on how to negotiate high-risk situations.
  • Motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral interventions.  

Topics for discussion

1. How can we better integrate the understanding of trauma and its effects into our current criminal justice system, particularly in the context of community supervision?

2. What strategies and resources could be more widely implemented to help increase resilience among high-risk offenders and reduce recidivism rates?

3. Given the high rates of trauma among the correctional population, how can trauma-informed care be more effectively incorporated into correctional facilities and community supervision practices?


References

1. Miller, NA, Najavits LM. (2012.) Creating trauma-informed correctional care: A balance of goals and environment. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 3(1). 

2. Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration. (2014.) SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Center for a Trauma-Informed Approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA)14-4884. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration.

3. Bonta J, Andrews DA. (2007.) Risk-need-responsivity model for offender assessment and rehabilitation. Rehabilitation, 6(1):1-22.

4. Shader M. (2003.) Risk Factors for Delinquency: An Overview. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice—Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

5. Brackenreed, D. (2010.) Resilience and Risk. International Education Studies, 3(3):111-121.

Prison Policy Initiative. (n.d.) Punishment beyond prisons: Incarceration and supervision by state


About the author

Dr. John Watts is a chief probation officer with 20 years of experience working at the State of Connecticut Judicial Branch, Court Support Services Division (CSSD). He also serves as an adjunct professor at Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut. Dr. Watts is a national trainer and consultant with the SAMHSA’s GAINS Center and Policy Research Associates and holds certifications as a Criminal Justice Addiction Professional (CCJP) and Forensic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (F-CBT).

He earned his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Charter Oak State College, a master’s degree in management and organizational leadership from Albertus Magnus College, and a doctorate in criminal justice with a specialization in homeland security from Saint Leo University.

Dr. Watts’s area of expertise centers around increasing criminal justice practitioner’s awareness of the prevalence of trauma among justice-involved populations.


Corrections1 is using generative AI to create some content that is edited and fact-checked by our editors.  

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