In just a few years, the term “trauma-informed” has drifted from the mental health sphere into our mainstream lexicon. Health systems were first to recognize the wide-spread experience of trauma in their clientele and to begin establishing and adopting trauma-informed practices. Social service providers and schools soon followed, and in almost every public service context, trauma-informed service has become the gold standard.

Almost every context, that is, except the criminal justice system.

Considering the life circumstances of many people caught up in the system, this seems surprising. Trauma informed practices in jails, prisons, and even in the courtroom have been developed, and their use has been strongly encouraged. Yet, in my practice, which has taken me to courts, jails and prisons throughout Pennsylvania, I have not seen evidence of any effort to incorporate those practices into the day-to-day functioning of any aspect of the system. I suspect that those recommendations may be viewed by some as coddling people who do not deserve such sensitive treatment, but that is a blog post for another day.

One set of players in the system, however, should embrace trauma-informed practice. The criminal defense team – attorneys, investigators, mitigation specialists, and everyone who has contact with clients accused of crime – will see immediate and tangible benefits, for their clients and for themselves, when they employ a trauma-informed approach.

Why adopt a trauma-informed approach?

The assumption underlying the trauma-informed approach is that those we encounter have experienced life-altering trauma. The numbers support that assumption. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over half of all adults in the United States have or will experience a traumatic event in their lifetimes. About 52% of adults experienced one or more severe or chronic stressors during childhood (such as experiencing abuse, witnessing domestic violence, losing a parent). In any given year, about 7-8% of the population meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.

By contrast, in the 10 years I have practiced as a capital mitigation specialist, every single one of my clients – 100% — had experienced trauma, and most had multiple, severe, and chronic traumatic histories. Research in this area supports my anecdotal observations. People on death row almost universally have significant histories of childhood trauma – one study estimated a rate four times higher than that of the general population.  A substantial majority of incarcerated women, by some estimates 90%, have histories of physical or sexual assault, and approximately 60% of incarcerated men show signs of moderate to severe PTSD.

Given those statistics, it only makes sense for defense teams to adopt a trauma-informed approach when dealing with clients facing serious criminal charges.

What is trauma-informed practice?

Many of our clients come from difficult circumstances, and their daily functioning and coping skills are not ideal. Add to that the stress of arrest and incarceration, and it should not be surprising that our interactions do not always go smoothly. Changing our own expectations — understanding that clients may be emotionally overwhelmed – can make all the difference. The most successful encounters happen when we “meet clients where they are” rather than where we want them to be. This is the essence of trauma-informed practice.

“Trauma-informed” simply refers to the understanding that many people we encounter have experienced life-altering trauma; engaging in trauma-informed practice just means that we conduct our interactions with that realization in mind. It is not treatment, or therapy, or something that should be left to the mitigation specialist. It is a set of simple, research-based procedures designed to help us identify and navigate obstacles before they interfere with our ability to work effectively with our clients. Trauma-informed practice works best when every member of the team is knowledgeable and committed to intentionally employing the approach in every interaction with the client and with anyone who plays a significant role in the client’s life.

Trauma-informed, step-by-step

Regardless of the context, a trauma-informed approach always includes several crucial components: (1) creating an atmosphere of safety; (2) establishing trust; (3) promoting collaboration; (4) empowering informed decision-making; (5) encouraging outside support; and (6) understanding the influence of cultural, historical, gender, and environmental factors.  The next article in this series will explore, in detail, each of these components, as they can be adapted to fit the circumstances and further the goals of the criminal defense team.