Why Prosecutors Need to Understand the Impact of Trauma

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Photo by skeyndor via Flickr

For too long, the criminal legal system has been the first responder to America’s mental health crisis, forced into action as the initial point of contact for people who have experienced significant trauma.

According to numerous studies, 94 percent of certain female prison populations have histories of physical or sexual abuse. In a study of a male corrections facility in Connecticut, 80 percent of the population there had witnessed a traumatic event, 73.9 percent were victims of a traumatic event, and 80.4 percent had both witnessed and directly experienced a traumatic event. The rates of trauma among juveniles are equally high.

Despite the growing research on the connection between mental illness, trauma and criminal legal involvement, criminal lawyers are still in the early stages of recalibrating their efforts to better address the needs of the communities they serve.

As the early responders in the criminal justice system, prosecutors occupy a unique position to either mitigate or perpetuate trauma within the system.

“Every day, prosecutors work closely with crime survivors, witnesses, and people accused of crimes, often without the breadth of support and information needed to make the best possible decisions,” says Lucy Lang, director of the Center for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) at John Jay College.

“Developing a trauma-informed approach to prosecution holds great promise for developing systems that will better serve everyone.”

Trauma-Informed Prosecution

How such an approach could work was the theme of a recent roundtable convened by the IIP, attended by 40 mental health and criminal legal experts—including social workers, assistant district attorneys, policy makers, academics, and community advocates.

The “Trauma-Informed Prosecution Roundtable” aimed to explore ways in which prosecutors’ offices can better address the range of traumas suffered by the people and communities that prosecutors serve, with the long-term goal of developing guidelines for prosecutors to incorporate trauma-informed best practices into their work.

Roundtable participants left the convening with a dual mandate: develop an independent training module which can be implemented into any office’s training curriculum, and convey to practitioners the importance of being trauma-informed in their work.

The conversation touched on a diverse set of criminal justice issues including racial and gender-based violence, re-traumatization of crime survivors, the traumas caused by system involvement, secondary trauma experienced by lawyers, and the inter-generational trauma often felt by communities of color, all in the context of a prosecutor’s ethical responsibilities and legal obligations.

The roundtable discussion revealed some basic gaps in trauma knowledge within prosecutors’ offices and trainings.

Representatives from local DA offices in particular described the challenge of accessing basic information about the roots of trauma, The IIP plans to fill that gap with foundational training materials that can be posted online.

As most acknowledged, no one expects prosecutors to become social workers. But they need better skills to recognize trauma and then channel victims to appropriate services.

Trauma is at the very core of the criminal justice system. It’s the primary social infrastructure through which the government responds to interpersonal harm. But the complexities of trauma in this context are myriad.

Repeated Trauma From Telling the Same Story

It is widely known that victims and survivors in the system are retraumatized when they are required to repeat their account of traumatic incidents countless times over the course of months and sometimes years of discussions and interviews with police and court authorities.

As a recent IIP publication notes:

Even initial engagement with the criminal justice system can worsen a victim’s trauma. Victims may fear system engagement because they do not want to relive traumatic events, are afraid of exposure to the media or the public, or are suffering from traumatic stress that may be triggered by the stressful experience of going through the criminal justice process.

Prosecutors have an important role to play here. And it starts with treating all system-impacted individuals with dignity. Equally important is to recognize that people accused of a crime have often been victimized themselves, including suffering from significant adverse childhood experiences.


IIP Roundtable Speakers (L-R) Lucy Lang, IIP director; Devon Simmons of the Center for Justice at Columbia; Dr. Chitra Raghavan, Deputy Director of the Forensic Mental Health Counseling Program at John Jay; and Brian Wilson, Special ADA Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office. Photo by Shanakay Salmon

Less well understood is how simply being processed through our contemporary criminal legal system can cause and exacerbate trauma.

Discussion about trauma is not new to prosecutors. Indeed some prosecutors’ offices do provide training, and even channel some victims to social workers and counseling.

Typically, however, trainings around the impacts of trauma are provided primarily for domestic violence and sexual assault cases.

That means there is still a long way to go. Better awareness of mental health issues can improve the way lawyers respond to all categories of crime. That awareness should be accompanied by an acquaintance with some of the latest innovative neuroscience research.

By connecting the neurobiological changes in the brain to the reactions and behaviors of those dealing with trauma, prosecutors can secure more just outcomes and higher levels of satisfaction amongst justice-involved people.

One example: criminal lawyers on both sides of the courtroom will benefit from understanding how trauma alters impulse control, cognitive functions, and memory recollection and be able to educate judges and juries accordingly.

This has vast implications for assessing the credibility of both survivors’ and offenders’ accounts.

A trauma-informed approach to prosecution is not just useful to understanding the impact of the system on justice-involved individuals. It can help prosecutors and other players in the system overcome and understand how they are affected themselves from trauma, either directly arising from stress or from exposure to stressful incidents. That also applies to police officers, social workers, psychologists, and all those who dedicate their lives to the legal system—all those, in fact, who hear, support and retell stories of harm.

A prosecutor is daily responsible for cases where he or she views graphic photos, sees injured or dead people, and speaks to family members in moments of profound grief.

But there is scant research in this area.  Criminal law practitioners could benefit tremendously if institutions like law schools and employers provided education about trauma and vicarious trauma. Providing classes, resources, and support systems for criminal law practitioners could contribute to a better criminal justice culture.

The increasing awareness that participants in the criminal justice system can benefit from an interdisciplinary understanding of trauma is just one example of how the role of prosecutors is shifting.

Shonna Carlson

Shonna Carlson

Now more than ever, prosecutors have to ask what purpose is served by prosecution in each case, and how to encourage a more equitable system focused on improving the community. In order to make these changes, prosecutors and all lawyers who work in the criminal justice system can benefit from better understanding how trauma impacts survivors, people accused of crimes, and even lawyers themselves.

Fundamental questions like when to punish, how to rehabilitate, how to create a system of equity, and other big picture questions cannot be answered if those working in the system are not equipped to handle the fundamentally human fact of trauma.

Shonna Carlson is a candidate for J.D. at the CUNY Graduate School, and a candidate for a Masters in forensic psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

One thought on “Why Prosecutors Need to Understand the Impact of Trauma

  1. Educating prosecutors to the significance of trauma includes not only those genuinely victimized by crime, but also the impact on people in cases where no crimes were committed at all. And, especially so, I’m referring to non-abused child victims of trauma in cases of false allegations. The visibility of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and the collateral damage wrested upon children in cases where abuse never happened must extend to prosecutors who are responsible for charging persons arrested for probable cause. Cases of source misattributions occur time and time again due to child suggestibility, implanted or triggered false memories, and/or pressured false confessions.

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