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Toward a Trauma-Responsive Criminal Justice System - Why, How and What Next?

The 5th Annual Irish Criminal Justice Agencies Conference took place on Wednesday, 4th July, 2018, in the Conference Centre at Dublin Castle.  The theme for this year’s conference was “Toward a Trauma-Responsive Criminal Justice System: Why, How and What Next?”.

This one day conference was a collaboration of the Irish Prison Service, the Irish Youth Justice Service (IYJS), the Department of Justice and Equality, An Garda Síochána, The Probation Service and the Association for Criminal Justice Research and Development (ACJRD). The lead partner for 2018 was the Irish Prison Service.

Speakers included:

  • Michael Donnellan, Director General, Irish Prison Service
  • Charles Flanagan TD, Minister for Justice and Equality
  • Mary Rose Gearty, SC
  • Ciara McCarthy, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Primary Care Psychology Service, Health Service Executive 
  • Dr Sharon Lambert, School of Applied Psychology, UCC
  • Dr Conor O’Neill, Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist, Central Mental Hospital 

A Conference Report from this and other ICJA Conferences can be found on the Publications Page of our website https://www.acjrd.ie/publications.

Videos which give an insight into Adverse Childhood Experiences were shown at the Conference.  To view these videos, please click on the following links:

Adverse Childhood Experiences:  http://www.aces.me.uk/in-wales/

Opening Doors:  Trauma-Informed Practice for the Workforce:  https://vimeo.com/274703693?ref=em-v-share

Toward a Trauma-Responsive Criminal Justice System:  Why, How and What Next?

It is the responsibility of the Department of Justice and Equality to work toward Ireland being a safe, fair and inclusive place to live and work.  Public safety and preventing future victims are fundamental to this objective.  Far too many people cycle through Ireland’s Criminal Justice System (CJS), wrestling with chronic mental health and personality difficulties, addictions, relationship difficulties, unemployment, poor use of leisure time, homelessness and isolation from the broader community.  It is time to name the, at times unpalatable, but near universal theme likely to be the genesis of many of these biological, psychological and social challenges: Trauma.  Trauma is not an ‘excuse’ for criminal behaviour but an experience common to almost all men, women and children who have contact with the Irish CJS and therefore a valid ‘contributory explanation’ of criminal behaviour.  In order for the Department of Justice and Equality to fulfil on its responsibilities, it is time for the Irish CJS to focus on trauma for a safer, fairer more equal Ireland. 

Men and women involved with the CJS report a history of significant traumatic experience prior to imprisonment (95.5% and 88.6% respectively; Steadman, 2009).  Experiences in the CJS can often contribute to new traumas, from arrest, through to sentencing, incarceration and release; in itself, it can become a cyclical relationship.  It is also the case that some victims of  crime, because of the seriousness of the crime committed against them can experience trauma up to and including PTSD. In addition, the operation of the criminal justice system can also in certain circumstances re-traumatise victims and this is known as secondary victimisation.  Add to this ‘system’, the experiences of trauma and vicarious trauma experienced by members of An Garda Síochána, the Judiciary, Prison and Probation staff who are tasked with the safe custody, sentencing, management, care, support and rehabilitation of traumatised individuals. 

Recognition and understanding of the role that trauma plays in contributing to an individual’s journey toward involvement in the CJS and the role that the CJS can have in perpetuating trauma and flight/flight/freeze trauma reactions is vital.  In highly stressful, potentially volatile or violent situations (as is often a feature of contact between Criminal Justice Agency staff and individuals), a history of repeated exposure to trauma can become a recipe for disaster for both users of the CJS and Criminal Justice Agency staff.  To address these problems, trauma informed justice systems have the ability to facilitate capacity building through appropriate supports for both individuals who are in contact with the CJS and individuals who work within the CJS.

It was the task of the 5th Annual Irish Criminal Justice Agencies Conference to develop trauma-responsive principles of care for consideration across all Criminal Justice Agencies.