Racial Trauma in Juvenile Justice Reform

headshot_106x126Joshua Rosa_106x126image_6483441_106x126

by Sharifa Garvey, Joshua Rosa, and Dr. Maryam Jernigan

Law Student Feature – Viewpoint

In recent years, the Massachusetts’ juvenile justice system has adopted new practices based on adolescent brain development research and trauma informed care practices.[1] While laudatory, these efforts have not addressed a critical component – racial trauma.  “Racial trauma” describes the negative psychological and emotional impact of racism on youths of color that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[2]  According to the Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, more than two-thirds of children and youth report having had some kind of traumatic experience before the age of 16.[3]  Youth of color encounter additional exposure to traumatic experiences driven by racism, discrimination, and prejudice.  Further, according to a 2018 report authored by the Department of Corrections, Black and Brown youths in Massachusetts were roughly three times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system than White youths.[4] Accordingly, the Massachusetts juvenile justice system should consider and address racial trauma experienced by juveniles in its trauma-informed care practices.

To understand racial trauma, it is imperative to understand the concepts of race and racism. “Race” is the sociopolitical categorization of people to differentiate between groups of people based mostly on physical features and genetics.[5] With the introduction of enslaved Africans in the Americas, the concept of race evolved in the Americas by labeling enslaved Africans as inferior and fit for manual labor based on their shared skills.[6] This construct has single-handedly defined the role of people of color in American society for generations and plays a crucial role in identifying and combating racism. “Racism” is prejudice or discrimination. It is often directed at someone based on a belief that one’s own race is superior. Scholars describe four levels of racism: individual, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic.[7] Generally, youths of color experience all four levels of racism, and each creating its own trauma.

Repeated experience with racism, may lead to the development of racial trauma.[8] Racial trauma is caused by a series of isolated exposures that accumulate and result in PTSD.[9]  This exposure includes experiences such as youths of color being depicted as menaces to society in the media; Black children being ridiculed for their hair texture; and youths of color being compared to animals because of their physical attributes. When Black and Brown children experience racism, they often internalize these experiences, which then in turn affects self-esteem, and stifles positive identity development.[10]

Many youths of color in the Commonwealth come from impoverished neighborhoods, with low socioeconomic backgrounds. They have been ill-served by their school systems and have experienced situations that demonstrate that society views them poorly. From this, they develop a perception that people of color are inferior and deserve to be punished. This instills a lack of self-worth in youth of color that is almost irreparable. This lack of self-worth can cause such children to make poor decisions that lead to a life in and out of jail. Normalization of these experiences prevent youths of color from recognizing that they are experiencing racial trauma. Teaching children of color about race and racial identity can assist them in responding more productively to issues of racism.[11] In fact, children who learn about racial development and racial socialization are more likely to graduate from college and work in positions that promote racial equity.[12]

Since 2008, the number of juveniles detained in Massachusetts have decreased significantly, largely as the result of various strategies, including diversion programs, raising the age of juvenile arrest, and discussing ways to implement trauma informed care practices.[13]

While Massachusetts’ juvenile detention numbers have sharply declined over the last decade and a half, the decline is lower for Black and Brown youth.[14] Thus, more action is needed. Massachusetts Juvenile Courts must also address the direct needs of youth of color by incorporating more of an understanding of racial trauma into their care practices, giving a full and nuanced perspective of each child. Data from various state and municipal sources can identify who the Black and Brown youths are in the system and why they are there.[15] This information could assist judges in addressing the direct needs of Black and Brown youth and allow them to implement equitable, community-based solutions.

By analyzing racial trauma and addressing it as a component to existing programs in Massachusetts, the juvenile justice system can better understand the children they serve, work toward building a bridge between communities of color and the criminal justice system and provide the support necessary for at risk youth.  All of these efforts will help children to become productive members of society.[16] The first step is to provide more specialized training on race, racism, and racial trauma to Juvenile Court staff, to help them understand how our youth and families of color are detrimentally impacted by racial trauma.[17]  The Court may then engage in cross-agency hearings[18] that listen to the voices and experiences of youth and families specifically about racial-trauma with the goal of making recommendations to provide equitable and appropriate treatment or alternatives to detention that would decrease recidivism, provide for holistic treatment, and give families the freedom to find solutions that work best for them. Additionally, community grassroots programs should be used to serve as positive alternatives to detention. Working alongside grassroots programs will also help to bridge the gap between communities of color and the justice system. Increasing the courts’ collaboration with community partners may allow communities of color to put more trust into the justice system and create a space to engage in a mutually beneficial exchange of ideas and dialogue on how to move forward together.

The Courts can and should be a voice for the communities they serve. Addressing the impact of racial trauma on juvenile offenders is a critical first step.

[1] See Juvenile Offenders, TMHC MA-CLE 15-1 (highlighting Mass. courts adopting the practice of adolescent brain development in juvenile cases); see also Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (barred death penalty for children under 18); see also  Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010) (prohibiting life without parole for juveniles convicted of nonhomicidal crimes); see also  Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010) (prohibiting life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder).

See Childhood Trauma Task Force A Report of the Childhood Trauma Task Force December 2019 https://www.mass.gov/lists/childhoodtraumataskforcecttf (describing how the juvenile justice system can incorporate trauma informed care practices).

[2] See Jernigan, Maryam M., and Jessica Henderson Daniel. Racial Trauma in the Lives of Black Children and Adolescents: Challenges and Clinical Implications. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, vol. 4, no. 2, 2011, pp. 123–141, doi:10.1080/19361521.2011.574678 (explaining that racial discrimination presents in symptoms of PTSD)

[3] See Saleem, Farzana T., et al. Addressing the ‘Myth’ of Racial Trauma: Developmental and Ecological Considerations for Youth of Color.” Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, vol. 23, no. 1, 2019, pp. 1–14., doi:10.1007/s10567-019-00304-1 (explaining that the numbers might be underreported and varies based on race and ethnicity).

[4] See Disproportionate Minority Contact Statewide Assessment Report for 2018, https://www.mass.gov/doc/disproportionate-minority-contact/download (providing data on racial disproportionality for detention, arraignment, arrest, etc.)

[5] See Historical Foundations of Race.” National Museum of African American history and Culture, 16 Dec. 2021, https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/topics/historical-foundations-race (providing historical context on the evolution of race as a social construct).

[6] See supra, note 5

[7] See “Summary of Stages of Racial Identity Development.” Interaction Institute for Social Change.  https://interactioninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/FFRJW-Updated-Pre-Work-1.3.2019.pdf

[8] See supra, note 2 (explaining that though not all people of color who experience racial discrimination show signs of PTSD most if not all show signs of fear, anxiety, helplessness, and other symptoms of trauma). 

[9] See supra, note 8.

[10] See supra, note 2.

[11] See Gaskin, Ashly. Racial Socialization. American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, Aug. 2015, www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/newsletter/2015/08/racial-socialization.

[12] See supra, note 10

[13] See Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. https://www.mass.gov/lists/dashboards-for-the-juvenile-detention-alternatives-initiative-jdai-in-massachusetts (providing race-based data on the decrease in arrest, arraignment, detention, and probation for juvenile youth); see also The Office of Child Advocacy. Massachusetts Juvenile Justice System data. https://www.mass.gov/doc/massachusetts-juvenile-justice-system-data-trends-webinar-presentation/download (highlighting significant decrease in juvenile systems using data from 2017-2021).

[14] See supra, note 13.

[15] See Annie E. Casey Foundation. Centering Racial Equity Throughout Data Integration. https://assets.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/aisp-atoolkitforcenteringracialequity-2020.pdf (explaining how to accurately collect cross sector data with a focus on racial equity to create a better equip youth serving system).

[16] See eg. Youth Advocacy Foundation https://www.youthadvocacyfoundation.org/, and Racial Reconciliation and Healing http://www.racialrec.org/

[17] See eg. Massachusetts JDAI; Discovering Justice https://discoveringjustice.org/; Citizens for Juvenile Justice (CFJJ) https://www.cfjj.org/

[18] Using cross-system collaboration includes things like round table restorative justice hearings where the youth and their families discuss their experiences and the barriers that may stifle progress or positive outcomes. Each agency will provide their recommendations based on the information they receive from the young person and family.

Sharifa Garvey is a second-year law student at Suffolk University School of Law. She serves as the Social Media Coordinator for the Suffolk University Black Law Students Association, and she is the Diversity Fellow for Suffolk University’s office of Diversity and Inclusion. Ms. Garvey is a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consultant, working with youth and family serving agencies to address the needs of racial equity within their organizational practice. Ms. Garvey is an Associate with the Bijoux Consulting Group working with organizations to learn and respond to racial differences in their agency.

Joshua Rosa is a second-year student at Suffolk University Law School and has a strong interest in criminal justice reform, immigration and education reform more specifically. He is a member of the Black Law Student Association, the Latin American Law Student Association, and he teaches preschool and school-aged children in the Boston area.”

Dr. Maryam M. Jernigan-Noesi is a licensed psychologist, clinician-scientist, consultant, and CEO of Jernigan and Associates Consulting, LLC. Dr. Jernigan-Noesi’s expertise lies in understanding how race and cultural factors influence health outcomes. She specializes in the assessment and treatment of racial stress and trauma and the development of culturally-responsive treatment interventions. 

Promoting Diversity in the Criminal Justice System

Cassidy_Mikeby Professor R. Michael Cassidy


The decisions of grand juries in Missouri and New York not to indict police officers responsible for shooting unarmed black men has sparked intense debate in this country about racial disparities in our criminal justice system.  Turning this public outcry into meaningful reform will not be easy.  But if public confidence in law enforcement is going to be strengthened, one important step is to make sure that the most powerful actors in our criminal justice system mirror the racial composition of the communities they represent.

We need more people of color serving as police officers, judges, jurors, public defenders, and perhaps most importantly prosecutors. Their talent, background, and perspective are essential to balanced and informed decision-making. Just as importantly, their presence in the courthouse will be critical to restoring a perception that our criminal laws will be fairly applied to all.  Until our prosecutors are as diverse as the public that they purport to protect, citizens will naturally question the fairness of charging and plea bargaining decisions that occur behind closed doors.

African Americans make up almost 13% of the population in this country, but only about 4.8 % of licensed attorneys. The National Black Prosecutor’s Association, a membership organization that bills itself as the premier professional network for black prosecutors across the country, counts only 800 members in their entire organization, even though there are over 25,000 lawyers working as state prosecutors in the United States.  Here in Massachusetts, my colleagues among the district attorneys estimate that in some counties as little as 2% of the courtroom legal staff identify as African American.

One factor contributing to this underrepresentation is salary.  Massachusetts prosecutors are among the lowest paid in the country—even below those in Arkansas and Mississippi, states with dramatically lower costs of living.  Entry level prosecutors in Massachusetts earn $37,500 per year.  The national median starting salary for prosecutors among the 50 states and the District of Columbia is $51,000.  In most courthouses across this Commonwealth, the prosecutor is the lowest paid state employee in the building—behind the custodians, the secretaries, and the assistant clerks. And the public defender does not fare much better.

This problem is not new.  The starting salaries for prosecutors in Massachusetts have not been raised since 2007.  In May of 2014, a blue ribbon commission formed by the Massachusetts Bar Association issued a report entitled Doing Right by Those who Labor for Justice exposing this gross inequity. The report concluded that “The present salaries paid to attorneys working in our criminal justice system are so inadequate that they cannot meet the financial obligations attendant to everyday, normal living. The unvarnished truth is the compensation is so poor that it drives these lawyers away from the criminal justice system or into the ranks of the working poor.” The Boston Globe highlighted prosecutors forced to live with their parents just to make ends meet. A Commission formed by Governor Patrick to study the problem issued a report in December, 2014 highlighting the urgency of this situation, and calling on the legislature to make specific reforms.

What does this have to do with diversity?  Many African American law students who are passionate about careers in criminal law simply cannot afford to work as prosecutors or public defenders due to the low salary.  On average, law students borrow $125,000 to attend a private law school and $75,000 to attend a public law school. This debt can lead to average monthly loan repayments of between $650 and $1600, depending on consolidation and the term of the loan.  With an entering salary of $37,500, young prosecutors in Massachusetts take home a monthly paycheck of approximately $2,200 after deductions– barely enough to pay for housing, transportation, food, clothing and utilities.  This salary structure makes recruitment and retention of minority attorneys particularly difficult, as recent surveys show minorities are more likely to graduate law school with debt.  Many African American students who have high loans simply cannot afford to undertake careers as prosecutors, and thus choose to work at law firms instead.  Low salary and high indebtedness may not be the only reason African American lawyers forsake careers in the criminal justice system, but they are certainly a contributing factor.  Governor Patrick echoed this concern in his letter to the legislature that accompanied the 2014 Special Commission Report, where he stated that the low salary structure “inhibits the recruiting and retention of public lawyers who mirror the communities they serve.”

Race is not the only demographic affected by low salaries in our state’s prosecutors’ offices.  The grossly inadequate salary for ADAs has led to a situation where the only people who can afford these jobs are those who have a cushion of support from other family members; e.g., a parent or spouse. Single men and women and persons from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are increasingly becoming underrepresented in many county DA offices, making these important public positions less and less reflective of the communities they serve.  Unless we are prepared to tolerate a situation where law school graduates with independent means and family support are the only ones capable of undertaking this crucial form of public service, we must improve the salary structure for prosecutors and public defenders.

It is well past time for the legislature to take action.  Parity with other states, parity with other government lawyers within Massachusetts, and fundamental fairness all dictate that salaries for our state prosecutors and public defenders should be raised in the 2016 budget.  Adding to the urgency of this situation is a legitimate concern for increased diversity among the ranks of our prosecutors, who are making life and death decisions that affect all of us.


R. Michael Cassidy is a Professor at Boston College Law School and Director of the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy.  He was appointed by Governor Patrick to serve on the Special Commission to Study the Compensation of District Attorneys and Staff Attorneys for CPCS.