Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

Racial Trauma in Juvenile Justice Reform

June 14, 2022
| DEI Special Edition 2022

By: Sharifa Garvey, Joshua Rosa, & Dr. Maryam Jernigan

In recent years, the Massachusetts’ juvenile justice system has adopted new practices based on adolescent brain development research and trauma informed care practices. While laudatory, these efforts have not addressed a critical component – racial trauma. “Racial trauma” describes the negative psychological and emotional impact of racism on youths of color that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).ii According to the Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, more than two-thirds of children and youth report having had some kind of traumatic experience before the age of 16.iii Youth of color encounter additional exposure to traumatic experiences driven by racism, discrimination, and prejudice. Further, according to a 2018 report authored by the Department of Corrections, Black and Brown youths in Massachusetts were roughly three times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system than White youths.iv Accordingly, the Massachusetts juvenile justice system should consider and address racial trauma experienced by juveniles in its trauma-informed care practices.

To understand racial trauma, it is imperative to understand the concepts of race and racism. “Race” is the sociopolitical categorization of people to differentiate between groups of people based mostly on physical features and genetics.v With the introduction of enslaved Africans in the Americas, the concept of race evolved in the Americas by labeling enslaved Africans as inferior and fit for manual labor based on their shared This construct has single-handedly defined the role of people of color in American society for generations and plays a crucial role in identifying and combating racism. “Racism” is prejudice or discrimination. It is often directed at someone based on a belief that one’s own race is superior. Scholars describe four levels of racism: individual, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic.vii Generally, youths of color experience all four levels of racism, and each creating its own trauma.

Repeated experience with racism, may lead to the development of racial trauma.viii Racial trauma is caused by a series of isolated exposures that accumulate and result in PTSD.ix This exposure includes experiences such as youths of color being depicted as menaces to society in the media; Black children being ridiculed for their hair texture; and youths of color being compared to animals because of their physical attributes. When Black and Brown children experience racism, they often internalize these experiences, which then in turn affects self-esteem, and stifles positive identity development.x

Many youths of color in the Commonwealth come from impoverished neighborhoods, with low socioeconomic backgrounds. They have been ill-served by their school systems and have experienced situations that demonstrate that society views them poorly. From this, they develop a perception that people of color are inferior and deserve to be punished. This instills a lack of self-worth in youth of color that is almost irreparable. This lack of self-worth can cause such children to make poor decisions that lead to a life in and out of jail. Normalization of these experiences prevent youths of color from recognizing that they are experiencing racial trauma. Teaching children of color about race and racial identity can assist them in responding more productively to issues of racism.xi In fact, children who learn about racial development and racial socialization are more likely to graduate from college and work in positions that promote racial equity.xii

Since 2008, the number of juveniles detained in Massachusetts have decreased significantly, largely as the result of various strategies, including diversion programs, raising the age of juvenile arrest, and discussing ways to implement trauma informed care practices.xiii

While Massachusetts’ juvenile detention numbers have sharply declined over the last decade and a half, the decline is lower for Black and Brown youth.xiv Thus, more action is needed. Massachusetts Juvenile Courts must also address the direct needs of youth of color by incorporating more of an understanding of racial trauma into their care practices, giving a full and nuanced perspective of each child. Data from various state and municipal sources can identify who the Black and Brown youths are in the system and why they are there.xv This information could assist judges in addressing the direct needs of Black and Brown youth and allow them to implement equitable, community-based solutions.

By analyzing racial trauma and addressing it as a component to existing programs in Massachusetts, the juvenile justice system can better understand the children they serve, work toward building a bridge between communities of color and the criminal justice system and provide the support necessary for at risk youth. All of these efforts will help children to become productive members of society.xvi The first step is to provide more specialized training on race, racism, and racial trauma to Juvenile Court staff, to help them understand how our youth and families of color are detrimentally impacted by racial trauma.xvii The Court may then engage in cross-agency hearingsxviii that listen to the voices and experiences of youth and families specifically about racial-trauma with the goal of making recommendations to provide equitable and appropriate treatment or alternatives to detention that would decrease recidivism, provide for holistic treatment, and give families the freedom to find solutions that work best for them. Additionally, community grassroots programs should be used to serve as positive alternatives to detention. Working alongside grassroots programs will also help to bridge the gap between communities of color and the justice system. Increasing the courts’ collaboration with community partners may allow communities of color to put more trust into the justice system and create a space to engage in a mutually beneficial exchange of ideas and dialogue on how to move forward together.

The Courts can and should be a voice for the communities they serve. Addressing the impact of racial trauma on juvenile offenders is a critical first step.