A state deputy attorney general, a police chief, two judges, a filmmaker who was once incarcerated, and representatives of a county parole department and the state department of corrections appeared earlier this year at the Bucks-Mont Collaborative Virtual Community Summit for a two-hour discussion about the remarkable progress being made to align Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system with the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences.
Why it matters:
The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study showed that people with a high number of adverse childhood experiences have a remarkably increased risk of violence or being a victim of violence. A multitude of other research studies have confirmed this, and recent research shows that an absence of positive childhood experiences (PCEs) is also harmful. Policies and practices that reduce ACEs, increase PCEs—in other words, trauma-informed policies and practices—help people heal and thus not only reduce recidivism, but help people earlier in their lives and improve systems so that they never become involved with the justice system .
This work is not a sudden undertaking:
The virtual gathering last May is just one milestone in years of meetings, presentations, and organizing to encourage people to think differently about human behavior: It’s not what’s wrong with you; it’s what happened to you. Understanding that concept, and the ACE Study, “changes everything,” Dr. Sandra Bloom has said. In the article, “Standing on the shoulders of giants: Trauma-Informed Pennsylvania builds on a foundation of early leaders and many community initiatives”, Elizabeth Prewitt chronicles the amazing journey that led to Governor Tom Wolf establishing the Office of Advocacy and Reform (OAR) in 2019 to create a trauma-informed Pennsylvania.
A group of 25 people across Pennsylvania were selected to join a “think tank” to provide the foundation to achieve this goal. That resulted in a report issued in July 2020: Trauma-Informed PA: A Plan to Make Pennsylvania a Trauma-Informed, Healing-Centered State”. In the fall of 2020, the initiative was renamed HEAL PA and 14 “action teams,” including the Criminal Justice Action Team (CJAT), were created to identify the specific actions and steps needed to create a trauma-informed PA. The focus of the CJAT was to bring together criminal justice professionals and others to create a trauma-informed criminal justice system throughout Pennsylvania. Meeting regularly for more than a year, 100 mostly volunteers from across PA serve on six committees: prevention, juvenile justice, policing, courts, corrections, and probation/parole, and reentry.
Following are brief highlights from all the panelists over the two hours. I’ll follow up later with another article on a deep dive into each part of the criminal justice system.
Everybody experiences PACEs and trauma
Robert Reed, Pennsylvania’s executive deputy attorney general for special initiatives, and moderator of the panel: Trauma-informed practices, based on the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences, is the basic understanding that “hurt people hurt people. It teaches strategies for preventing and mitigating stress and trauma. It recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma for those involved within the criminal justice system. And that doesn't mean just the people who are going through the system because they've been charged with a crime. It includes the people who are providing the services: the police officers, the probation officers, the correctional officers, the witnesses, the victims, the judges, their staff, juries and prosecutors. All of these people can be impacted by trauma, and by fully integrating knowledge of trauma into their policies, procedures and practices, they prevent retraumatizing people while treating them with dignity, respect and empathy.”
Universal trauma screening for youth in the juvenile justice system
Angela Work, director of quality assurance in juvenile justice, Juvenile Court Judges Commission: The juvenile justice community began a transition to a healing-centered system in 2010, after they participated in the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change Initiative. Recently, they decided to integrate what promises to be a revolutionary approach: Implementing trauma screening for all youth.
“We know youth exposed to multiple adverse childhood events are at an increased risk to re-offend. We can recognize that a youth must be physically and psychologically stable to participate in services and to demonstrate progress; therefore, stabilizing mental health could be critical. A study of youth in detention found that over 90% had experienced at least one trauma, and 55% of youth reported exposure to trauma six or more times.”
Screening will identify youth who need help, identify appropriate services, develop and implement plans for each youth, assess how those plans are working, and refine them if necessary. “The use of assessments and screening tools has been embraced by our juvenile probation departments. The youth, the parents or the guardians are involved in the case planning process. The youth are being asked about what their strengths are, what types of interventions and incentives are meaningful and are important to them. And by beginning to include the youth and the parents and the guardians in the process of developing a case plan and working to manage that case plan, it's increasing the buy-in from the youth and from those parents and guardians.
“We have 67 separate juvenile probation departments in Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. And to be able to say that we have all 67 counties engaging at some level or another, I think is a true accomplishment. So, knowing that we do have some form of engagement from every single jurisdiction in our commonwealth, I think that is that the truest testament that I can provide that it is being received well, and we will continue to work to enhance and refine the work that the probation officers are doing as they create those trauma-responsive case plans.”
Humanize those who are incarcerated
El Sawyer, co-founder Media in Neighborhoods Group, formerly incarcerated: "I challenge everybody to not use the word “inmates”. How can we talk about humanizing our approach, and still use dehumanizing terminology? That’s a challenge, right? So, the idea is, how do we put the people first? And who's involved with translating the cultures of the people that they're representing?"
Empowering police officers to help people
Police Chief Randy Cox, Somerset Borough, Pennsylvania. Although ACEs and the concept of trauma-informed principles were new to Cox, the gist of the principles has always been his philosophy and his approach to his job. The police department has integrated several trauma-informed programs, including a de-escalation program for police officers, based on the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences. Here are four other changes that have been made in the department:
“Handle With Care is a very simple but effective program. When officers see a child in a home who’s experienced trauma, including just the trauma of police presence, they note the address and children present. I review all those send a notification to the superintendent of our school district and the principle of the building where the child attends school. The information is very brief: ‘This child may have suffered or been exposed to a traumatic event that could have an impact on his or her emotional or educational well-being. Please handle with care.’ Since February 11, 2021, we have generated over 130 'Handle With Care' notifications to schools in the school district. One of the benefits to the department is the officers become more aware of ACEs and traumatic events. I also think that their level of empathy increases as does their recognition of trauma.
"When our officers are engaged in either a planned or spontaneous arrest and there are children of the person they're arresting and whether the kids are present or not, the officers are obligated to take additional steps to make sure that the welfare of those kids is intact and that those kids are being supported. Whether it's something the officer can do or whether it's a referral to another agency or just making another agency aware.
“Anyone can approach any one of our officers and request treatment for drug addiction. Because of support from local treatment agencies and the county, our officers can have that person in a treatment facility within an hour."
One of the bills that passed the legislature and as signed into law by the governor was to train all law enforcement in Pennsylvania to learn about trauma and trauma informed policing. The Municipal Police Officers Training Commission is starting to roll out training.
The importance of a judge understanding trauma
Judge Stephen Minor, Potter County Court of Common Pleas. Minor wasn’t always trauma-informed. Now he asks probation officers and attorneys to let him know before proceedings start if the people they represent have issues of trauma or mental health. He learned this lesson the hard way, when he began berating a young woman who turned away from him as he was addressing her. As he began to get angrier, her probation officer waved his hand.
“He said, ‘Judge, can I come up and talk to you?’ And I said, ‘Sure’. So, he came up and he said: ‘This young lady of color who came across the ocean is living here with this White couple in Potter County and her parents have passed. She is separated from her siblings, and she doesn't know where to go or how to respond to this new environment.’
"And you want to talk about wanting to crawl under the bench?! I certainly wanted to do it that day. And everything changed and I began to have a conversation with her about her life and her plans for the future. You know, I already traumatized her because I hadn't looked at the human being and trauma that she had gone through.
“And in that instant, it really, really came home to rest with me about how important it is that judges be aware of trauma when we're dealing with people.”
‘I didn’t become a judge to punish people’
Judge Stephanie M. Sawyer, Municipal Court Judge, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. "You don't become an adult magically at 18, but at 18, magically, the entire thrust, the entire focus of the system moves from a purported attempt at rehabilitation to punishment. And so that tends to be traumatizing.
"I don't know about anybody else, but I didn't take this job just to punish people. I took this job so that I can actually help folks. My version of becoming trauma-informed is resource-based sentencing supervision. That means that any condition that you set on a defendant, you have to provide them with the resource to fulfill that condition.
“So, if that person needs to get a high school diploma, you have to give them the cost-free resources and encouragement to get the diploma. You can't wait until they appear before you on another charge and then wonder why they’re appearing in court again. That to me is absurd. Probation ought not be intended to be some time where you sit in the corner and just wait for time to go by. Probation should be the time where you get the tools that you need to access the kind of stability needed so that you will not offend again.”
It’s not our job to punish them. It’s our job to give them the support they need.
Kelly Evans, deputy secretary for re-entry, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. “Probably a little over a year ago, in line with Governor Wolf's initiative, we made the intentional decision that we were going to become a trauma-informed agency. We know that most people that come under our care have experienced some sort of trauma and, if they haven't, just coming to state prison is traumatizing. So, we have hired a position specifically to oversee this initiative.
“We believe in not imposing our morals, our judgments, our values on others, and understand that we're meeting people where they are when they come to us. This is a cultural change, and it's a large organization to change our culture, but we are putting a lot of efforts there. We realize that many of our staff are also victims of trauma, and that our staff has to live the healthiest life possible if we expect them to treat our inmates and our parolees with respect and help them. We hired Dr. Stephanie Covington, an internationally recognized clinician and consultant, to train our parole board and our hearing examiners. In January, we started training all of our staff—corrections officers, parole agents, clerks, and everyone who comes through our basic training academy. They get a four-hour block on becoming trauma-informed. Just this week, we've partnered with SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) to train 20 of our federal staff and our bureau of community corrections staff. They will be tasked with going out and training everyone in our agency on trauma. And then next month, we will focus on our institutional staff, and we will have 20 additional staff train in a train-the-trainer program.
"So, it's an agency-wide effort and the bottom line is that we're trying to make the DRC a more humane place. You know, the punishment for those that we serve is being in the Department of Corrections. It's being away from their family. It's not our job to punish them. It’s our job to give them the support, the treatment that they need, so that they can come out and reunite with their families, stay in our communities and be successful.
In probation, a shift from punishment to understanding and healing
Michael Harrison, deputy chief, Bucks County Adult Probation & Parole Department. “For a long time, the purpose of supervision was detecting technical violations to get a reason to lock people up to get to get them back in jail. There's a history of not taking trauma into account at all, a history of asking people what's wrong with you, instead of what happened to you.
“You know, it's about culture change. I've lived it and I've seen how it works when a probation and parole department does a better job being trauma-informed and addressing an individual’s trauma. That individual is more likely to be responsive and open to some of the evidence-based practices.
"If a person heals, our community's safer. There's less victimization. There's less crime. Taxpayers are better off because it costs a heck of a lot less to work with folks in the community on probation than to incarcerate them. So, it's really a win-win for everybody. And it's founded in a belief that everyone deserves the right to be treated like a human being—with respect and dignity. Everyone does. And that's it. That's a systems approach.
“And that's why this work we’re all doing is so out of the box, because as a system, we've never taken this approach. There have been pockets of great work going on all over the place, but never has an entire criminal justice system gotten together like we are now to achieve this kind of change."
It’s going to take time
Robert Reed, summing up: “A lot is happening. It's one thing to come up with recommendations and proposals. It's another to implement them and make them work and get people to buy in. That's going to take time. Sadly, it's going to take time. But at least we've started this process.”