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Justice-involved youth have complex histories that not only contributed to their delinquency but present challenges for rehabilitation. They often experience poverty, violence, familial instability, exposure to drug use and gangs, and serial relocations. These compound factors exacerbate a lack of self-confidence, learning difficulties, physical disabilities, and mental health issues. 

In the field of public health, these experiences are identified as traumatic: including a loss of safety, powerlessness, fear, hopelessness, and a constant state of alertness. In a video blog, Christa Collins noted that exposure to trauma severely diminishes decision-making skills and the ability to cope with stress. 

Thus, developing appropriate rehabilitative options for justice-involved youth requires a nuanced and compassionate investigation of a youth’s social history. For youth who commit serious and violent crimes, this is even more imperative for the protection of the public. According to the trauma-informed care model adopted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the question the system should be asking shifts from what is wrong with you?” to what happened to you?” 

This model incorporates all points of contact with the system, from the police officer, to the judge, to the custodial officer, and even to the court secretary and the superintendent. Everyone involved in the process, whether they interact with the youth on a daily basis or not, should be trained to understand the vulnerabilities and triggers of trauma survivors so that the system can anticipate and avoid re-traumatization.

This sort of systemic reform stands apart from other juvenile justice reform measures such as Evidence-Based Practices or Restorative Justice. While these successful programs focus on addressing the offender’s delinquent behavior, trauma-informed care focuses on the environmental factors underlying their delinquency. It requires traditional institutions, such as California’s DJF, to overhaul its inherently custodial culture and replace it with a therapeutic milieu. For example, the power and control dynamic of custodial staff may mirror experiences in youth’s past abusive relationships. Heightened gang hostilities and fear of violence in the facilities intensify experiences youth encountered on the street. Thus, in a traditional custodial setting, the risk of re-traumatization is high.

Youth who commit serious and violent crimes often require a period of custody to ensure public safety. In a trauma-informed system, these youth would be confined close to their communities, in smaller facilities, supervised by staff who are trained to identify and appropriately address symptoms of trauma. Justice system stakeholders would engage community-based programs, the youth, and their families in developing a sensible and safe re-entry plan that focuses on the youth’s resiliency and future success.

Of course, many youth are able to overcome significant adversity without committing crime and these challenges do not make crime excusable. However, recognizing the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledging the role trauma has played in the youth’s life allows the justice system to tailor the remedy towards rehabilitation more effectively, thereby providing justice for all.