In this blog, Dina Papamichael explores the relationship between experience of trauma and involvement in the criminal justice system; and outlines the emerging approaches from Scotland which have potential to transform justice outcomes across the UK. 

Links between childhood adversity, trauma and involvement in the criminal justice system are well evidenced. Those with four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are significantly more likely to be a victim of violence; perpetrator of violence; and be incarcerated during their lifetime. Experience of prolonged stress in childhood can disrupt healthy brain development and lead to risk-taking and offending in adulthood. Amongst those in prison in Scotland, just under half report personal experience of violence in their home as a child and 80% of those in prison in Wales report at least 1 ACE.

Links between adversity and offending can be broken

The association between childhood adversity and involvement in the criminal justice system informs two essential types of initiatives:

1. Recognising the impact of ACEs and trauma on individuals to prevent initial experience of the criminal justice system

2. Providing trauma informed interventions to those who already have experience of the criminal justice system to ensure risks of re-traumatisation are minimised.

In implementing these approaches, there is a need to ensure that those with ACEs are not stigmatised through implications that childhood adversity is inevitably associated with involvement with the criminal justice system.

There is a need to prevent initial involvement in the criminal justice system

Criminal justice processes such as being arrested, going to court and being imprisoned are often traumatising in themselves and should be avoided altogether wherever possible. Several innovative approaches which seek to understand the behaviours associated with adversity and reduce the likelihood of offending can be pursued:

Ensuring that at risk young people are not excluded from early crucial support: The Interventions for Vulnerable Youth (IVY) project is based at the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice at Strathclyde University. It seeks to prevent offending amongst high risk youth by acknowledging and addressing traumatic experience, and providing risk assessment and treatment

• Extending support to the children of those with mental illness or problem alcohol or drug use: Having a parent with mental illness or problem alcohol

or drug use are types of childhood adversity. Health and care professionals can adopt holistic approaches which consider the whole family’s needs and extend support to children

Finding innovative ways to access those who may not be already linked in with support: Violence Reduction Unit Scotland’s Navigators reach out to those with traumatic injuries in accident and emergency departments to explore which support is needed to reduce the impact of violence on their lives.

Developing safe environments, promoting resilience and avoiding re-traumatisation are crucial for those with experience of the criminal justice system

When supporting those who have past or current involvement in the criminal justice system, services can be mindful of traumatic experience and take steps to build trust, reduce barriers to access and avoid re-traumatisation:

• Developing supportive, safe and trusting environments: Tomorrow’s Women Glasgow is a multi-agency centre which provides a wide variety of services to address the needs of women involved in the criminal justice system. The centre’s approach is trauma informed in that it prioritises safety, collaboration and trust for those accessing it. Services are offered in a low security environment which is important for supporting women to feel at ease and has not led to any increased risk for staff or other clients

• Equipping individuals with strategies to cope with the effects of trauma to support their resilience: Courses such as Survive and Thrive which explain the effects of complex trauma and provide coping strategies can be adapted for use in prison settings. This approach has been shown to lead to reductions in symptoms of anxiety and depression amongst clients

• Supporting staff to be mindful of trauma when interacting with clients: Staff working in criminal justice and related services can be provided with training on the behaviours associated with trauma, creating trauma informed environments and avoiding re-traumatisation.

Overall, the current climate of growing recognition around the impacts of adversity and trauma provides an opportune moment for innovation and collaboration in approaches to criminal justice. A growing body of evidence from trialled Scottish initiatives can be drawn on to inform trauma informed approaches across the UK.  

Dina is a Consultant in our London Office. For more information about our work in trauma informed practice and criminal justice, get in touch on 020 7253 6289