From Mandy Davis, LCSW, PhD, Director, Trauma Informed Oregon
I have avoided writing this blog because there is so much that needs to be addressed regarding the judicial system and trauma – the theme of this newsletter. But of course, it is this avoidance that I, we must resist because avoidance often perpetuates harm. To talk about the judicial system means we have to talk about racism, systemic oppression, power, economics, and trauma and that can feel overwhelming. Even what we call the system can lead to inaccurate assumptions and connections. For example, some say the criminal justice system but this makes an assumption that everyone involved committed a crime and it labels the person (criminal) instead of the behavior (crime). Others say the justice system but for far too many the process and procedures are far from just. Both of these characterizations focus mostly on consequences, which is only one aspect of what the judicial system does.
Judicial related interventions also encompass preventing involvement with the system in the first place, healing harms, protecting others, and preventing continued involvement. I have worked across many of these programs. My first exposure was with a pilot program that provided an alternative to incarceration for women with misdemeanor convictions. My role was to be at court to complete assessments and determine if someone was eligible for the program (and determining who is eligible is one of many places where othering happens). I remember sitting in court and taking in the fear, worry, stress, us-vs-them, power, and hope that engulfed the courtroom from and between victims, offenders, and staff. I followed this internship with volunteering on a sexual assault hotline where I supported survivors at the hospital or court. My final internship was at a maximum security forensic psychiatric institute where I completed what was called not guilty by reason of insanity assessments and not competent to stand trial assessments. I continued my career in sexual assault response where I have advocated for and supported survivors for whom the judicial system often fails and is traumatizing. I have also spent time learning with and from judges, attorneys, probation officers, correctional staff, and detention staff.
My experience in this work is that those who have caused harm often have histories of trauma and adversity (I am thinking of the workforce as well). I understand this is not true for every everyone. Our stated attempt to prevent, protect and restore was and still is failing and this system failure has a deep impact. We often hear this system is broken but this is an understatement. There is a disconnect between the assessment and the intervention. Those working in the system know this all too well and are trying to make changes, but I believe it will require all of us – community members, providers, legislators, researchers, persons with lived experience to promote restorative practices.
It is important to remember that ending adverse childhood experiences means ending incarceration and this cannot be done if we are not addressing the root causes – racism, systemic oppression, trauma, power, and inequity.
I believe applying the knowledge and principles of TIC can help support this transformation. It helps us understand why. And, though understanding why someone causes harm in no way takes away the pain experienced by survivors it can help us intervene more effectively. TIC supports both accountability and healing by focusing the work on systemic change.
The judicial system is inundated with trauma and has the responsibility to both protect and restore which can seem contradictory at times. I fear the complexity of this system and the toxic stress of those impacted (think jurors, family of correctional officers, children of incarcerated parents) keeps us from seeing ways to change – innovation, imagination, transformation. Read these blogs and check out the supplemental materials especially if these ideas are new to you or you don’t agree. For those that do trauma related work, sitting with complexity and pain and holding hope is what we train for and we can apply this to the work of transforming systems.
When talking about judicial reform keep race, economics, power, and colonization at the table. Understanding these relationships has helped me see ways for effective interventions. I saw this quote in a presentation recently :
“The opinions we held certain yesterday may not be adequate to the problems of today” and I wanted to add and may be the cause of the problem of today. We have to unlearn, rethink, and constantly ask “what do I believe and how did I come to that belief?”
This is not a complete list but some current examples of doing it differently, promoting healing, and accountability are: