Barton: Address childhood trauma for criminal justice reform
It is impossible to work within our American criminal justice system and witness the events over the past several months without asking whether there is a better way of doing things.
The disparities that we see throughout society in areas such as education, housing and healthcare are even more apparent when viewed through the lens of our criminal justice system.
As a prosecutor who has seen the impact of crime on perhaps thousands of victims over the years, I value fundamental principles such as accountability, rule of law, and personal responsibility. Yet as a father, husband and member of our community, I believe that seeking social justice is a priority, fighting racism and bias is an obligation, and recognizing that Black lives do matter is a necessity.
How do we address the intersection of criminal justice and social justice so that we can ensure our system is truly fair, truly just, and truly equitable for everyone?
There are many who have proposed ideas to help move in this direction. Some are sensible and deserve immediate support, such as reducing barriers to firing bad police officers, requiring body worn cameras, or preventing excessive use of force. Others are unreasonable and detached from reality, such as abolishing police altogether, eliminating all misdemeanor crimes or emptying our prisons.
Ultimately, our elected representatives bear the responsibility for sorting through these proposals and determining the path forward. As a district attorney, although I can and do provide input, my obligation is not to make the law, but to enforce it.
Nevertheless, as I watch our society grapple with these issues, and as I support sensible criminal justice reforms, I also know something more drastic is required in order to accomplish transformational change.
Our criminal justice system is often asked to do too much too late. As the "catch-all" for all of society's woes and problems, our system responds when all else has failed and there are no other options. It is asked to do too much, because it was never designed to be the solution to mental health, substance use disorders and trauma. It is asked to intervene too late, because by the time a crime is committed and a victim is harmed, the root causes of that crime may have occurred long ago.
Before a person with mental illness uses a weapon to harm innocent victims, could treatment have helped? Before a person with a substance use disorder robs to fund an addiction, could medication assisted therapy have helped? Before a young parent who was abused as a child neglects their own child, could an intervention have helped?
While the prosecution of those who choose to commit crimes is appropriate, I believe the answer to those questions is often "yes," and our obligation to act is clear.
Our society must recognize a truth that numerous scientific studies have established, and countless medical professionals already know — children who experience abuse, neglect and other forms of trauma are more likely to suffer from challenges such as mental illness, substance use disorders and even physical health consequences as adults. Known as Adverse Childhood Experiences or "ACEs," these factors harm children throughout our community and are exacerbated by disparities related to education, housing and healthcare.
A recent study published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics demonstrates that while ACEs are common across all sociodemographic categories, children who are certain minorities, poor, or identify as gay/lesbian or bisexual are disproportionately impacted. The obvious conclusion is that if we act to reduce disparities for our children now, we can rely less on our criminal justice system to respond later.
We recognize this necessity in Washington County. For the past year, a task force of leaders has worked to strengthen our proactive response to ACEs. Our aspiration is to co-locate our recently established Family Justice Center with CARES Northwest, Oregon's oldest and largest child advocacy center, into a single location in Washington County. This comprehensive facility would demonstrate a commitment to equity and justice while ensuring every family in our community, regardless of sociodemographic status, has access to a trauma-informed response when abuse, neglect or other trauma occurs.
Let me be clear, this effort is not a panacea to solve all problems. Indeed, it must occur alongside other important initiatives to combat racism and bias. Nevertheless, I believe if we hope to accomplish a transformational change so that we are better equipped to achieve the fair, just and equitable society that we desire, we must do more to address childhood trauma now.
Kevin Barton is district attorney for Washington County.
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