Trauma in juvenile offenders

One critical risk-factor leading people to the criminal justice system is trauma. An estimated 93% of youths involved in the system have a history of trauma (Maschi & Schwalbe, 2012, p 21). The earlier that trauma can be addressed, the less likely someone is to later become involved in the legal system. The American Psychological Association (2020) defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives.” Some other examples of traumatic events, specifically involving juveniles, include physical assault, witnessing violence or death, the death of a loved one, and family or school problems (Maschi et al., 2012, p 21).

Following exposure to trauma or stressful experiences, adolescents may struggle with emotional, psychological, or behavioral problems which can lead to high-risk behaviors later on in life (Maschi et al., 2012, p 21). Due to their lack of coping mechanisms, these adolescents may also develop substance abuse issues, which is an additional risk-factor for entering the criminal justice system (Maschi et al., 2012, p 21). Other risk factors include issues at school, younger age at first offense, intellectual level, familial dysfunction, poverty, and family substance abuse, mental health, or legal issues (Greenwald, 2002, p 179). It is necessary for agencies to implement trauma-informed interventions due to the high rate of trauma present in juveniles within the justice system (Maschi et al., 2012, pp 21-22).

Youths involved in the criminal justice system are frequently sentenced to probation supervision versus incarceration, which necessitates the need for programs and services to address trauma and stressful events. Probation officers utilize enforcement of court orders as well as case management techniques to reduce criminogenic risk factors and increase resiliency (Maschi et al., 2012, p 22). State assessments, referrals to treatment programs and direct counseling are techniques that many probation officers implement to harvest success in their client (Mashi et al., 2012, p 22).

Probationers who are non-compliant with their court order are usually threatened by negative sanctions ranging from increased reporting, a violation of probation, or incarceration. Incarceration and isolation may only intensify the pre-existing trauma. As such, alternative approaches are necessary. Mashi et al. (2012) suggest using techniques that involve problem-solving, incentives, counseling and persuasion, such as motivational interviewing (p 22).

Maschi et al. (2012) recommend using trauma-informed assessments as an intervention tool in probation (p 27). By utilizing a trauma screening instrument, probation officers can tailor the services they refer. Mashi et al. (2012) also found that a “supportive, empathic approach” may persuade a juvenile to engage in the recommended treatment programs (p 28). Nelson and Vincent (2018) indicate that juvenile offenders who received services relating to their criminogenic needs based off assessments were 50% less likely to reoffend later in life, which supports the criticalness in addressing trauma and substance abuse in juveniles (p 1137-1138). Miller and Bornstein (2012) indicate that involvement in the legal system can sometimes produce positive results if the individual is able to learn coping skills, relaxation techniques, and utilizes positive social supports (p 3).

Cognitive-behavioral treatment methods are found to be effective in reducing recidivism. Role-playing and art therapy are frequently introduced during treatment due to cognitive and language differences in adolescents (Greenwald, 2002, p 179). Additional effective therapeutic interventions include exposure-based treatments (Greenwald, 2002, p 181).

Effective treatments for trauma also include skills training and therapeutic exposure. Skill training incorporates self-care, relaxation and meditation, role-playing, positive self-talk and reconstructing thoughts in a rational manner (Greenwald, 2002, p 181). Skills training also focuses on social skills, problem-solving methods, self-esteem, and violence (Greenwald, 2002, p 181). Exposure therapy includes desensitization, flooding, prolonged exposure, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) (Greenwald, 2002, p 181-182). Motivation-Adaptive Skills-Trauma Resolution (MASTR) treatment is an intervention that has been proven to reduce stress, stress-related symptoms, and undesirable behavior while improving school performance (Greenwald, 2002, p 252). The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (2018) reports juveniles with strong peer social supports can strengthen positive relationships and recovery through mentoring, coaching, recovery groups, or community building (p 11).

While having involvement in the criminal justice system at a young age can have a negative impact on a juvenile offender, it may ultimately produce a positive outcome. By properly addressing and treating issues surrounding substance abuse, school, home environment, and mental health, specifically trauma, the less likely the juvenile is to reoffend later on in life. There are a variety of treatments that have been proven effective in adolescent populations including cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, EMDR, MASTR, role playing, art therapy, and skills training. These therapeutic interventions may also involve group therapy, which has been proven effective in reducing recidivism and trauma through positive social supports. Overall, juvenile offenders suffering from trauma can ultimately become successful if they are properly assessed at frequent intervals using reliable measurements, the services they are connected to appropriately match their needs, and they create and maintain positive social supports.



American Psychological Association. (2020). Trauma. American Psychological Association.

Greenwald, R. (Ed.). (2002). Trauma and juvenile delinquency: theory, research, and interventions. Florence: Taylor & Francis Group.

Mashi, T., & Schwalbe, C. (2012 Jun 27). Unraveling probation officers’ practices with youths with histories of trauma and stressful life events. Social Work research 36(1), 21-30.

Miller, M.K., & Bornstein, B.H. (2013). Stress, trauma and wellbeing in the legal system: where do we go from here? Oxford Scholarship Online, 1-19. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199829996.001.0001

Nelson, R.J., & Vincent, G.M. (2018 Jun 27). Matching services to criminogenic needs following comprehensive risk assessment implementation in juvenile probation. Sage Journals, 45(8), 1136-1153.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (2018 Apr). Reentry starts here: A guide for youth in long-term juvenile corrections and treatment programs.

Vassar, G. (2019 Jan 15). How judges are becoming trauma-informed [image attached].

View all posts