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Addressing Emotional Trauma, Addictions May Help Reduce and Prevent Crime

Brain-development research points toward best way to intervene in lives of at-risk children

Heather Forkey and Eric Arauz
Dr. Heather Forkey of the University of Massachusetts Memorial Children’s Medical Center in Worcester, MA, and Eric Arauz, president of the Trauma Institute of New Jersey and a psychiatry adjunct instructor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

More attention is being paid to behavioral healthcare as a way to help ex-prisoners re-enter society – and to prevent people from committing serious crimes in the first place.

Behavorial health approaches to dealing with crime range from addiction treatment for both prisoners and for nonviolent offenders to improved counseling and social services for at-risk children and their families.

Efforts focused on adults who have committed crimes include programs like Integrity House in Jersey City, which works to make sure that offenders who enter prisons or jails with addictions receive treatment while they’re incarcerated. Along similar lines, the state’s drug court system is now focused on trying to divert nonviolent offenders away from the prison system and toward treatment before they commit more serious crimes.

Both efforts are underpinned by research showing that treatment can reduce the rate of recidivism, a term for relapses into criminal behavior.

Integrity House President and CEO Robert J. Budsock said his organization also works with other local providers to ensure that ex-prisoners receive treatment after leaving jail. Program participants have a 23 percent rate of being arrested again within three years, compared with the national rate of 70 percent.

Research is strengthening the case for bolstering addiction treatment and other mental-health services for nonviolent offenders, said Mary Gay Abbott-Young, CEO of the Rescue Mission of Trenton, a homeless shelter that provides addiction services.

“Things like the drug court and other programs that keep people out of prison are so crucial,” she said, because they provide treatment that people who have committed crimes may never have received before,. “That really is a healthcare program. We don’t think of it in that way, but it really is healthcare.“

Some researchers advocate a more comprehensive approach to behavioral health services, beginning with children whose behavior brings them into conflict with other children at school. These researchers point to brain-development studies which have found that chronic stress in early childhood raises the risk that children will commit crimes as adults.

Dr. Heather Forkey, a pediatrician, said many children can benefit from understanding that the behavior that’s gotten them into trouble is rooted in their bodies’ natural reaction to chronic stress.

Forkey said that the effect on children of stress from experiences like physical abuse, witnessing domestic violence, and homelessness is similar to what soldiers undergo in combat.

Specifically, the part of the brain that controls the flight-or-fight instinct becomes larger, while the parts of the brain that affect memory, learning and impulse control become smaller, said Forkey, who spoke at Jersey City’s second annual conference on prisoner re-entry on Friday. She is based at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Children’s Medical Center in Worcester, MA.

“We very well may be misinterpreting behaviors that are trauma-related,” and instead diagnosing children as having attention-deficit or behavior disorders, she said.

“All we’re going to see is adaptations that anyone would make in that exact situation,” Forkey said.

This understanding of childhood trauma should extend to how we treat adults in the criminal justice system, said Eric Arauz, president of the Trauma Institute of New Jersey and a psychiatry adjunct instructor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

He said society should replace the term “evil” with the word “wounded.”

Former Gov. James E. McGreevey, who organized the conference, said that the traditional punitive model of incarceration doesn’t address prisoners’ addictions or other healthcare needs.

“By the time we’re addressing the needs of the inmate, the damage has already been done and mere incarceration will never, can never address the systemic causes,” McGreevey said.

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