From Austin Averett, MA, Trauma Education and Resilience Scholar, Conflict Transformation Practitioner
As a graduate candidate in Conflict Resolution, the projects I’ve worked on have required understanding mechanisms of the criminal justice system and, in particular, the experiences of the victims/survivors navigating it. Navigating the criminal justice system is a stressor. Even navigating restorative justice pathways intended to be victim-centered and sensitive can be stressful and/or overwhelming. Together, the framework of Parallel Justice and a trauma informed care (TIC) approach within the criminal justice system can account for cracks in our broken justice system, facilitating opportunities for healing and repair for victims.
First, I highlight trends in criminal justice and restorative justice that impact the experiences of victims in these systems. Next, I discuss the framework of Parallel Justice and how TIC can facilitate cooperative connections between Parallel Justice and the traditional criminal justice system. Finally, for those engaged in the criminal justice system, I emphasize how to begin recognizing and responding to people affected by trauma in meaningful ways.
Criminal Justice & Restorative Justice
Fundamentally, the United States criminal justice system is an offender-centered process. Its role and the roles of service providers within the system unfortunately aren’t oriented toward responding to the needs of victims or toward repairing harm done. Importantly, there is a rich history of Victims’ Rights advocacy resulting in federal and state recognition of these fundamental rights afforded to victims:
To have a meaningful role in the criminal justice process
To be treated with dignity and respect
To fair and impartial treatment
To reasonable protection from the offender
To receive prompt restitution
However, most victims don’t have access to justice and services through the criminal justice system since many offenders are never prosecuted, convicted, or even arrested. Those that do experience the criminal justice system often face difficulty accessing these rights, despite their protected status.
Restorative justice pathways aim to repair harm done to victims and communities; a goal typically sidelined by the punitive outcomes of criminal justice. Unfortunately, restorative justice programs operating within or alongside the constraints of the criminal justice system also tend to gravitate toward addressing and repairing harm done to constituents within correctional systems rather than centering victims and repairing harm done to them. This is necessary work, which contributes to healing and repair on another extremely important level. Still, it fails to be truly victim-centered in such a way that there is meaningful opportunity to repair harm done to victims and survivors.
These institutional trends of sidelining the needs of victims contribute to a perpetuated sense of powerlessness. A sense of powerlessness or helplessness typically aggravates and extends the impact of trauma. Ultimately, this means that these systems are only exacerbating the initial harm done to victims by failing to listen and respond to their experiences and by not addressing their needs and healing.
The Parallel Justice framework accounts for “helping victims rebuild their lives” and repair harm done, where the criminal justice system typically fails to do so (National Center for Victims of Crime). Imagine the rungs of a ladder connecting the parallel paths of the traditional offender-centered criminal justice system and a separate victim-centered reparative justice process. Parallel Justice accounts for the following:
Victim safety is prioritized by police, court, and other responsive agencies
Active role for the government; how the state contributes to repairing harm (legal rights, compensation, access to victim support services, etc.)
A formalized process for victims to explain what happened to them and share what they need
These principles of Parallel Justice result in meaningful opportunity for victims to rebuild a life that’s been disrupted by harm, with the support of advocates and service providers.
Integrating TIC into traditional criminal justice policy and procedures is an important step to aligning criminal justice procedures and goals with the goals of Parallel Justice. This would be an example of one of SAMHSA’s 10 Implementation Domains: Cross Sector Collaboration. If the criminal justice system and service providers within it can recognize patterns of trauma and respond in such a way that the experience of the victim is recognized, honored, and re-traumatization is resisted, I believe we can begin to achieve a much more well-rounded sense of justice.
This graphic depicting the green-yellow-red thresholds of physiological response to stress offers helpful insight. The metaphor of the stoplight also helps indicate that these responses come in an anticipated order: green, yellow, red. Unlike a stoplight, moving from red to green typically includes a stop at yellow along the way to feeling a sense of safety at green. As individuals navigate the justice system in the aftermath of harm, they are bound to experience stress. At no point should these experiences result in the toxic “prolonged activation of the stress response system.” However, “positive” and perhaps even “tolerable” levels of stress (while they need to be recognized and responded to!) may arise. As this happens, it is important to be able to recognize these experiences and respond to them.
An important note: “tolerable… buffered by supportive relationships” does not mean that people should be expected to tolerate exposure to harmful behaviors. “Tolerable” refers to the body’s physiological capacity to support the dual cognitive decision-making and emotional processing skills needed to navigate an experience. If someone is struggling to do so, they are in need of support and a chance to re-regulate which may be provided in the form of a break from proceedings, an alternative arrangement, and perhaps an opportunity to communicate what occurred, why it was harmful, and how to avoid it re-occurring. The presence of supportive companions is invaluable, and it is also accounted for in Oregon’s Victims’ Rights: the presence of a support person while navigating the criminal justice system (Oregon Department of Justice).
The diversity of people and experiences informs the diversity of thresholds for experiencing different conditions. There is a level of flexibility and creativity necessary for supporting such a diverse range of people and traumatic conditioning. Fundamentally, there needs to be more efforts to educate on trauma’s automatic physiological process in the body within the criminal justice system. This will support the capacity of service providers (judges, attorneys, court assistants, administrative coordinators, correctional officers, etc.) to recognize trauma responses and overwhelming moments for what they are: automatic survival skills and signs that someone needs support. Concurrent with that process, evaluating and revising policy and procedures for TIC compatibility will support criminal justice service providers to respond to and support people in need, rather than reacting to and pathologizing their trauma.
I like to use resources like Babette Rothchild’s chart depicting the Autonomic Nervous System: Precision Regulation – What to Look For (Rothschild, 2000, Somatic Trauma Therapy) as a tool for recognizing dysregulation and knowing when and how to respond. The chart provides information that can be aligned with the above green-yellow-red stoplight graphic. Click the image below to see the original in a larger size.
Green (GREEN/BLUE on chart): breathing is easy or may begin to increase in rate; resting or slight increase in heart rate; relaxed or attentive posture; access to prefrontal cortex functions (decision making combined with emotional processing).
These signs of ease and minor activation are indications that, while an experience may be stressful or uncomfortable, the person is present to their experience and regulated. Examples to continue to support this person: Remain relaxed and attentive to them; use verbal and nonverbal consent checks for further interaction; listen and respond to their contributions to the interaction; provide a few options or at least explanation of further procedures, etc.
Yellow (BLUE/BECOMING ORANGE on chart): breathing increased, may be visible in shoulders/upper chest; quick, increasing heart rate; toned or tense posture; limited or, a shift to, no access to prefrontal cortex functions (decision making combined with emotional processing).
These signs are indications that a pause for support is needed as overwhelm is near or has been reached. Examples of support to help regulate: Ask for or create a break in proceedings, account for ability to move (a brief walk, stretch, chance to stand or sit depending on previous position); ask how they are doing and what support you could provide; ask or share about something unrelated to stressful content and positive in nature; give them more physical space.
Red (ORANGE/RED/PURPLE on chart): hyper- or hypo-ventilation; heart rate is very (*too) fast or slow; posture becomes rigid or limp; noticeably pale or flushed, unresponsive.
These are severe signs of overwhelm and dysregulation.
Red and Purple on Rothschild’s chart call for very different responses. The nervous system collapse described in purple is a medical emergency, whereas the state described in red can be assisted by anyone but does require an immediate measured and unconditionally supportive response in order to co-regulate. This is similar to de-escalation skills. Examples of how to respond: immediately halt proceedings and, if possible, occupy a space designated for composure; communicate with them in a relaxed tone; ask them if they can hear and see you; allow space in the conversation for their response (which may be fast or slow); ask them where they would like you to sit or stand relative to them (more space or less space); do not re-convene before they feel fully resourced and able.
Recognizing and responding to trauma is a complex process, and a major obstacle to doing so is often the fear of not doing it correctly. Allowing for not knowing what or how something will play out creates freedom around how we can support one another creatively and according to the immediate circumstances. Finally, reading a blog about how to provide support is a good place to begin. However, supporting people, listening to people, and responding meaningfully to people are all active practices done in collaboration. I cannot underscore enough the importance of trauma education and TIC becoming integrated into criminal justice systems in order to support the realization of justice.
Austin Averett, MA (pronouns: she/her) is a graduate candidate in Portland State’s Conflict Resolution master’s program. She is working on movements and models for collective resilience and peace building, trauma education, community support, and nervous system regulation. She recommends Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy (2017) as an inspiring approach toward cultivating caring and transformative interdependence.