4 June 2024

What does research tell us about young adults in the justice system and trauma?

Trauma, Young adults
A young white woman with a blond ponytail stares away from the camera out a window

Georgia Barnett is a psychologist and researcher, and partner at KTA Research and Consulting who specialise in bringing evidence into criminal justice practice. Georgia worked for HMPPS for 22 years, and spent the last 10 years working in the HMPPS Evidence-Based Practice Team. Georgia has written a series of shorts blogs for T2A, providing a snapshot of the young adult evidence base.

What do we mean by trauma?

There isn’t a single agreed definition of trauma, but experts say this involves both events that are experienced as extremely harmful and an adverse reaction to those events that has long-lasting, negative impacts that get in the way of a person’s normal functioning.

What do we know about trauma and young adults in the justice system?

A 2017 report by Beyond Youth Custody looked at published research and reports about trauma among young people in the criminal justice system and found:

  • Trauma is more common in young adults in prison than in the general population.
  • Common types of trauma among young adults in prison include the experience of childhood abuse, loss, victimisation, mental health issues and brain injury.
  • Women are more likely than men in prison to have suffered a range of trauma, including sexual abuse and family violence.
  • Trauma is more common in the histories of people who display aggression, engage in antisocial or offending behaviour, including violent or sexual offending, who gamble, and who misuse substances, than those who don’t engage in these behaviours.
  • Trauma makes it more likely that individuals will suffer from certain mental health difficulties including depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and more generally, from anxiety and stress, and perceptions of low self-worth.1

More recent research based on interviews with young adults serving long sentences in England suggests that those who have previously experienced trauma find life in prison more challenging than their peers.2 This research also found that young adults serving long prison sentences can find it difficult to talk about trauma because they might not want to admit or show vulnerability, might not see adverse experiences as traumatic, have problems with memory about childhood events, or don’t have the language or emotional literacy to talk about this issue.

What can we do to support young adults experiencing the effects of trauma?

Research with young adults in prison suggests that we should:

  • recognise that young adults may have experienced trauma themselves as result of their offending behaviour. When encouraging young adults to talk about trauma, it might be more helpful to identify, explore and work on the causes of specific issues that could stem from trauma, like sleep or appetite problems.
  • recognise and work on issues with self-compassion, loss, and grief.
  • be careful not to judge risk and need prematurely, as denial of risk and harm can be a way young adults might cope with their sentence. Adjustment to long sentences could be particularly difficult for those young adults who have a history of trauma.
  • use a strengths-based approach which makes the most of existing strengths, and builds resilience, support systems, and new, helpful ways of coping.
  • meet the young adults where they are, understanding and working with rather than against any apparent resistance or lack of motivation to engage, and working at a pace that helps them to change and develop.
  • ensure people working with young adults have a good knowledge of the impact of trauma and aim to use trauma-informed practices which focus on creating safe, predictable environments, and strong, trusting relationships.
  • involve partner agencies (e.g., social services and mental health services) to provide co-ordinated, integrated and holistic care.

Trauma-informed practice (TIP) is an approach that could help young adults in prison or on probation. TIP means staff are aware of and skilled in responding appropriately to how trauma might impact on how someone feels or behaves, and that organisational cultures and practices do not allow a person’s trauma to get in the way of their access to services.3 TIP usually involves: 1) creating a sense of safety, 2) building and maintaining trust in the organisation and in relationships, 3) giving choice, 4) collaborating, 5) empowering the individual, and 6) being inclusive.4

More information and free resources about working with trauma, and trauma informed practice are available from Intermediaries for Justice and the Youth Justice Resource Hub.

  1. Beyond Youth Custody (2017). Trauma and young offenders – a review of the research and practice literature. Trauma-and-young-offenders-a-review-of-the-research-and-practice-literature.pdf (beyondyouthcustody.net) ↩︎
  2. O’Rourke, R. (2022). The nature and impact of trauma in young adult male prisoners: screening for trauma and exploring the experience both past and present. Available at: https://irep.ntu.ac.uk/id/eprint/473 ↩︎
  3. Petrillo, M., & Bradley, A. (2022). Working with Trauma in Adult Probation: HMIP Research and Analysis Bulletin 2022/02. Available at: Working with trauma in adult probation (justiceinspectorates.gov.uk) ↩︎
  4. Bradley, A. (2021). Viewing Her Majesty’s Prison Service through a trauma-informed lens. Prison Service Journal, 255, 4-11. ↩︎