Whilst a lot of the criminal justice system focuses on retribution and punishing people for crimes, there is an argument that the focus should actually be on healing. That’s why restorative justice is so interesting and potentially powerful, but how does restorative justice be used to help victims with the trauma of crime? That’s the focus of today’s forensic psychology podcast episode. A perfect episode for anyone interested in forensic and criminal psychology wanting to learn more about the psychological impacts of crimes on victims.
Today’s episode has been sponsored by Forensic Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
What Is Trauma In Crime?
In case you’re brand-new to criminal psychology, it’s important to know that when a crime happens this sadly sets a number of events in motion that can be very damaging to the mental health of victims. Not only does this include the crime itself, like being home when a bulgar raids your house or being held at knifepoint. But this also includes what’s known as secondary victimisation when the criminal justice system itself victimised and traumatised the victim of the crime.
In addition, when we’re talking about trauma and because psychology loves a definition, as every single psychology student can tell you. Trauma is a deeply disturbing and/ or distressing event that has long-lasting mental, emotional and physical impact on a person. For example, an event like a natural disaster or a car crash could be traumatising but so could exposure to traumatic conditions for a long time. Like abuse, crime as well as combat. Resulting in this trauma manifesting itself in several ways like PTSD, depression, anxiety and also crime.
That is a very interesting finding because logically you might assume that because a person has experienced and been traumatised by a crime then they wouldn’t want to commit a crime. This isn’t always the case because whilst the prevalence rate of traumatised people going on to commit crimes, of course, varies by population type of trauma. There is a strong link between criminal behaviour and trauma (Ardino, 2011).
Another study supporting this claim is from the National Center For Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (NCPTSD) who found that people that experienced childhood trauma like sexual or physical abuse are at a higher risk of involvement in the criminal justice system. With the results being 80% of men and women in both state and federal prisons have a history of trauma compared to “only” 60% of the general population.
Now I want to say upfront here that this is a very heart-breaking thing to hear and it also raises a lot of ethical questions that we do sort of investigate in this episode. For example, given how traumatised and abused some of these people are, should we be punishing them or trying to help them deal with their trauma? Let’s stick with that question in mind and I’ll come back to it later on.
Additionally, research from Wolff and Shi (2012) demonstrated how these traumatised people, who especially experienced their trauma in childhood, are more likely to engage in their criminal behaviour and risky behaviours as a method of coping with the trauma. As well as we have to note that trauma can lead to the development of mental health conditions, which sort of contributes to criminal behaviour but as I talk about in Forensic Psychology, this link is tenacious to some extent.
Overall, at the end of this section, we have to realise that not every person who is traumatised will go on to commit crimes as well as not every criminal has a history of trauma. However, when we consider that a resilient community responds to the victims’ needs to help reduce the impact a crime has on them, us understanding the link between criminal behaviour and trauma can be very important. Especially when we then use this knowledge to help develop more effective and compassionate interventions for people who have been traumatised and then go on to become involved with the criminal justice system.
What Is Trauma Informed Care?
Trauma-informed care encapsulates an approach to justice about providing services that recognise the impact of trauma on people and it helps to incorporate strategies to address the effect of the trauma in the delivery of care. For example, trauma-informed care includes understanding how common trauma is, responding with empathy and support, recognising the symptoms and signs of trauma and taking steps to avoid retraumaisation.
Thankfully this type of care is used across a wide range of settings like social services, healthcare, education and the criminal justice system.
Personally, I really like this idea because when it comes to people that have gone through hell and go on to commit crimes, I just can’t see how it’s right not to take the trauma into account in at least some fashion. Especially when the research says this type of care works.
How The Current Justice System Traumatise People?
I’ve mentioned a few times in this episode about how the criminal justice system leads to victims becoming traumatised even if the crime itself wasn’t traumatising. This is down to a number of factors that we’ll look at now.
Firstly, the process of reporting a crime, facing the offender during a trial, actually going through the trial process and more can all be re-traumatising for the victim. Especially if they aren’t providing with good resources and support in the first place.
Secondly, in the justice system, there is a massive problem with a lack of sensitivity. Now whilst part of this might be down to the sheer size of their workload, many criminal justice professionals just are not trained to recognise the symptoms or signs of trauma and they really might not understand the impact of their words and actions on a trauma survivor.
Thirdly, and this is hardly a shocker for any long-term listeners of the podcast, there is a sheer lack of mental health care for people with trauma-related mental health conditions. Especially when they’re in a criminal justice system either as a victim or criminal and this only leads to an increased risk of reoffending and the continuing of their trauma.
Now if we step back for a moment and take the emotion out of it and our society’s natural tenancies to want punishment and retribution. I think we have to admit this is very silly because if we treat a criminal for trauma-related mental health conditions so they have healthy ways to deal with their trauma. Then they will be less likely to reoffend, meaning less crimes, meaning less people going through the criminal justice system meaning less money has to be spent on this area.
Overall, meaning public services are spending less money on criminals and surely this would make politicians very happy. So why isn’t there the political will to investigate this area more? I have spoken about that in other areas so I won’t repeat myself here.
In addition, criminals can be retraumatised during their incarceration as jails and prisons can be high-stress environments capable of triggering memories and feelings of their past traumatic experiences. Therefore, this does only lead to more people becoming traumatised and having their trauma continue.
Finally for this section, the survivors of crimes can be stigmatised by criminal justice professionals causing the victim’s feelings of shame, guilt and isolation to only increase. This only makes the trauma of going through the criminal justice system worse.
Also, it is very much worth noting that there are a lot of amazing professionals and organisations trying to address these stark issues and start implementing a trauma-informed practice to help minimise the retraumaisation of people.
I really, really hope they succeed.
What Is Restorative Justice?
Whilst traditional views of crime and punishment focuses on, well, punishment and getting the criminal to “pay” for their crimes. This view overlooks the needs of the victim and restorative justice focuses on the importance of repairing the harm done by the crime, repairing relationships and rebuilding communities so the criminal doesn’t do it again and so that some good can come out of the crime too.
This is done by bringing the criminal and victim together in a restorative conference and they discuss the impact of the crime so they can work towards a resolution that addresses the needs of all parties.
And most importantly in my opinion, unlike traditional views of crimes, restorative justice is victim-focused. Resulting in research finding victims in these cases are more satisfied with the outcome and feel validated, heard and have a greater sense of healing and closure (Latimer et al., 2005; Strang et al., 2013).
Also, restorative justice can result in community service for an offender, restitution and other forms of reparation instead of going to prison and court trials.
However, it is important to note that not all victims are suitable or even willing to take part in this restorative justice. I really understand this because some crimes just are not suited to this format and I don’t even think I would be willing to talk with and listen to the needs of an offender. Especially if the offender had attacked me, murdered someone I love or abused me.
Again though, restorative justice does tend to get used for different crimes.
How Is Restorative Justice A Trauma-Informed Approach?
Now restorative justice can be used as a trauma-informed approach because we can use it to recognise the impact of trauma on both the offender and the victim and address the effects of the trauma by restoring the harm and repairing relationships in the restorative justice conference. This is done by focusing on the traumatic impact and formulating preventive strategies as a result.
In addition, if we want to roll this out wider and make this a sort of standard for criminal justice. The process would have to involve an understanding of how common trauma is, recognition of the signs and symptoms of trauma, how to respond with support and empathy as well as an understanding of how we take steps to avoid retraumaisation.
Moreover, when it comes to victims, a restorative justice process that is trauma-informed would have to create a safe and supportive space for them where they could share their feelings, needs and experience along with knowledge of resources and support for them to heal from their awful trauma. Again just basically correcting the errors of the current criminal justice system.
On the other hand, when it comes to offenders, this process needs to understand the role of trauma in criminal behaviour and how to address those underlying problems as part of their rehabilitation. And it is that rehabilitation that research shows time and time again is so critical to stop reoffending.
Restorative Justice As A Trauma-Informed Approach In The Real World
For the final section of the podcast episode, I want to prove that nothing in this episode is only theoretical so here are three real-world examples. There are at least two more but I am conscious of time and length of this episode.
Firstly, Canada uses this approach as provinces like British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta used these types of programmes to address the needs of offenders and victims.
Secondly, the United Kingdom uses restorative justice programmes in several jurisdictions including education, youth justice, communities as well as the criminal justice systems.
Finally, many states in the United States, like Vermont, Colorado and California use these programmes as do cities like Baltimore and Chicago.
Forensic Psychology Conclusion
On the whole, it is important to note that this is a new field of psychology and the number of places using restorative justice will very likely to grow as its effectiveness becomes more widely recognised. And whilst this is flat out not appropriate for some crimes, like I personally still believe we need to punish sex offenders, abusers and murderers. There are other types of crimes that I really want to see this used in because it isn’t right we forget about an offender’s or victim’s trauma in the justice process. Because if we don’t address the victim’s trauma and feelings, then who are we deserving justice for? Is it for some government statistics or is it actually like so professionals can feel good about themselves about their day’s work?
If we dismiss, don’t care about the trauma and how traumatised the victim are, then I am not ashamed to say then justice is failing the victim. The very person the justice system is meant to serve.
I really hope you enjoyed today’s forensic psychology podcast episode.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Forensic Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Have a great day.
Forensic Psychology References
Ardino V. Post-traumatic stress in antisocial youth: A multifaceted reality. In: Ardino V, editor. Post-traumatic syndromes in children and adolescents. Chichester, UK: Wiley/Blackwell Publishers; 2011. pp. 211–229.
Wolff N, Shi J. Childhood and adult trauma experiences of incarcerated persons and their relationship to adult behavioral health problems and treatment. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2012 May;9(5):1908-26.
Latimer, J., Dowden, C., & Muise, D. (2005). The Effectiveness of Restorative Justice Practices: A Meta-Analysis. The Prison Journal, 85(2)
Strang H, Sherman LW, Mayo-Wilson E, Woods D, Ariel B. Restorative Justice Conferencing (RJC) Using Face-to-Face Meetings of Offenders and Victims: Effects on Offender Recidivism and Victim Satisfaction. A Systematic Review. Campbell Systematic Reviews 2013:12
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