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Tags: capitalpunishment | executions | mental | impairment

The Science of Trauma Backgrounds of Criminals

prisoner in orange jumpsuit behind bars

Hannah Cox By Tuesday, 25 February 2020 08:37 AM Current | Bio | Archive

The past year was the fifth year in a row that the U.S. carried out fewer than 30 executions. All 22 executions came from only seven states, and over 40% of them came out of Texas alone.

As the geography surrounding executions became even more concentrated, so did another factor marking the backgrounds of those the country deemed should die. In 19 of the 22 cases the defendant had a severe mental impairment.

By mental impairment, researchers mean one of three things — the defendant had a traumatic brain injury, a severe mental illness, or a history of chronic childhood trauma. Many had more than one of these.

Here's why conservatives should care about these backgrounds that, for far too long, have been viewed as a "bleeding heart" issue by the left instead of what they truly are — underlying scientific factors of violence that, if addressed, could lead to less crime in the first place.

An effective justice system that uses our tax dollars to actually prevent violence should be the goal of our system, and currently, we're nowhere close to that.

As science continues to evolve, we are consistently learning more about the nature of violence, its causation, and its potential deterrents. And what the research shows is that adverse childhood experiences have far-reaching impacts on the neurocognitive functions of an individual and their propensity for future victimization and perpetration.

It is an overt simplification to say that "hurt people" hurt people, but what can be said is that both men and women in prison have above average rates of childhood and adult victimization. Quite simply, you do not come across people who wake up and all of a sudden become violent. Rather, the vast majority of those who commit harm were almost always significantly harmed themselves (many times over) before they became violent.

Rarely do we find the victim versus perpetrator dichotomy in our prisons. Instead, we see individuals move throughout the justice system playing different roles at different points — victims' family member, victim, and perpetrator are often all in one.

The events that cause trauma — violence, fear, and loss to name a few — create a toxic stress that affects the brain in a number of ways. Neuroscientific research shows impaired functioning in brain areas responsible for threat detection and response, and emotion regulation.

The amygdala is responsible for key functions that include detecting threats in the environment and activating fight-or-flight responses. The prefrontal cortex is in charge of making response decisions, regulating emotions, and inhibiting or correcting dysfunctional reactions.

These regions work together to detect a threat and initiate a proper response. However, in the brain of a person with chronic trauma, we see a hyperactive amygdala team up with an under-activated prefrontal cortex for terrible results. Essentially, the amygdala overreacts to a potential threat while the prefrontal cortex neglects to regulate the response. A perfect storm for violence.

So, when people point to the tragic backgrounds of those who have committed harm, they do not do so to excuse their behavior but rather to explain it.

While I believe that those who commit violence still bear personal responsibility for their actions, I would argue that those with significant differences in their brain functionality, stemming from scientifically proven circumstances, are less culpable than others who act in a healthy state of mind. Our justice system should reflect that and better protect those with mitigating factors from the most severe punishments, yet we often find the opposite to be true.

Fortunately, policy is beginning to catch-up to the science and we're seeing innovative practices evolve that could prevent violence in the first place.

There's a movement that is gathering momentum to build a new system for justice that is comprehensively focused on restoration and curing violence rather than punitively responding when violence does occur, which can further victimize individuals and increase the chances of recidivism. Organizations like mine are at the helm of this cutting edge work.

A trauma-informed system would mean that everyone involved (law enforcement, corrections, communities, and yes, even perpetrators) are given pathways to heal former trauma and prevent the cyclical nature of violence. It would mean our system offers healing for the underlying causes of violence and restorative justice for everyone impacted. And it would mean that those harmed get the things that they need to move forward.

A new day is dawning in the United States. We know what we've been doing hasn't worked, and we've shown that both the right and left can come together on these matters to affect change. Trauma is no longer a bleeding-heart issue, it's a scientific issue that we can all work to address.

Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.

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An effective justice system that uses our tax dollars to actually prevent violence should be the goal of our system, and currently, we're nowhere close to that.
capitalpunishment, executions, mental, impairment
Tuesday, 25 February 2020 08:37 AM
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