Texas Tech University

Report: Youth Justice Policy Ignores Impact of Trauma

Glenys Young

December 15, 2020


Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo is the lead author on the report from The Square One Project.

Three years ago, while preparing for her Fulbright Scholarship working with Brazilian foster children in the criminal justice system, Texas Tech University's Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo spoke about the importance of prevention in helping at-risk youth improve their well-being.

"I believe we would be able to solve numerous problems if we put a lot more resources into prevention," she said. "With prevention, we build the capacity to foresee what the problems might be and build stronger individuals and stronger youth who will be able to deal with their own circumstances in a better way in their future."

But before prevention must come a wider understanding of what leads these youth into the criminal justice system. Now, through her work with The Square One Project at Columbia University, Trejos-Castillo has a chance to help that effort.

For the last three years, The Square One Project has brought together experts from across the country to examine and discuss the state of U.S. criminal justice and justice policies at the intersection with racial/ethnic discrimination, criminalization, victimization and other factors affecting vulnerable populations – such as economic and health inequalities, gender, poverty and immigration.

Despite a 66% drop in youth incarceration over the past 20 years, the U.S. continues to detain children at one of the highest rates in the world. Its youth justice system continues to over-rely on arrests, detention, imprisonment, life sentences without parole and confining youth in adult corrections facilities.

A new report from The Square One Project, "Learned Helplessness, Criminalization and Victimization in Vulnerable Youth," explores how the U.S. got to this point and what legislators, policymakers and practitioners must do to change it. Trejos-Castillo, the C.R. Hutcheson Professor, associate chair and graduate program director in Human Development and Family Sciences, part of Texas Tech's College of Human Sciences, is the report's lead author.

Currently, detainment serves as an immediate catch-all response to problems affecting young people, from poverty and mental health struggles to truancy and breaking curfew. These behaviors may be coping mechanisms for traumatic events, yet instead of recognizing them as such, detention and incarceration are far too often used as the "solution."

The report explores the ways in which current youth justice policy and practice lacks consideration of the trajectories and contexts – both individual and societal – in which youth live. Instead of providing the support youth need, the system rushes to criminalize them.

The report highlights the concept of "learned helplessness," a phenomenon well understood in developmental psychology and by the youth themselves, in which traumatic experiences and toxic environments can impact the decision-making of youth, pushing them down harmful pathways and causing adoption of negative coping skills. While a human development perspective is not yet widely incorporated in the youth justice system, this report argues that incorporating it is critical to reducing youth incarceration rates, advancing resiliency and overall well-being in vulnerable youth, and building healthier and stronger communities.

"Instead of young people resorting to survival skills, we can give them what they need to change, grow and thrive," Trejos-Castillo said. "Challenging the life trajectories of vulnerable young people starts with listening directly to those young people. Only when their voices come to the center can we begin to ensure safe, healthy and thriving lives for them."

This paper offers recommendations for policymakers, practitioners and legislators on how to better serve vulnerable youth, including:
• Respond to offenses by youth with restorative justice practices and policies;
• Make community-based reintegration programs and welfare services an immediate and universal priority for all justice-involved youth; and
• Fortify social service systems to prevent learned helplessness and diminish youth criminalization.

This report, co-authored by Evangeline Lopoo and Anamika Dwivedi, is released through Square One's Executive Session on the Future of Justice Policy, which seeks to generate and cultivate new ideas around the work to reimagine justice. Read the full report here.

About the Square One Project

The Square One Project aims to incubate new thinking on our response to crime, promote more effective strategies, and contribute to a new narrative of justice in America. The three-year project is funded by the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and housed at the Columbia University Justice Lab. Learn more about the Square One Project here.