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Does Trauma Excuse Negligent Activity?

— February 11, 2020

It’s in everyone’s interest to consider the role of trauma in preventing antisocial behavior because, at the end of the day, trauma doesn’t discriminate. It could happen to you.

How did your childhood shape you? Should past trauma matter when judging your current behavior?

In one of Legal Reader’s last posts, we discussed the case of a man who ran down a woman while trying to escape the police. He took a life, but he apologized in a way that was sincere and took responsibility. The court cited the man’s early childhood in foster homes and gave him a sentence below what was recommended.

One of the most illuminating developments in criminal psychology and the understanding of offending behavior is the understanding of the impact of past trauma. Study after study shows that childhood trauma is associated with a greater risk of emotional disorders and co-morbid conditions like substance abuse. Further, rates of past trauma are high among people who are incarcerated.

Of course, PTSD doesn’t “cause” crime. People can and do go through harrowing experiences and still avoid criminality. But the high rates of trauma combined with a better understanding of the social and psychological elements of crime could mean that it should be taken into consideration, particularly if the goal of the justice system is to rehabilitate the offender.

What Trauma Means for the Brain

When we think about trauma, we tend to associate it with the worst kinds of experiences: natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and horrific abuse. However, the definition of trauma isn’t a list of defining experiences that fit into a clinical diagnosis. Trauma exists on a spectrum, and its intensely personal — an event that one person finds merely difficult could cause another person extreme stress.

What is clear, however, is that trauma has physiological effects on the brain. Trauma and disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder literally change brain function. In most cases, trauma creates dysfunction in two important regions of the brain: the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.

The dysfunction in your prefrontal cortex (the frontal lobe) can cause issues with:

  • Regulating your attention span
  • Making decisions and responding to situations
  • Regulating your emotions
  • Sorting through emotional events (both meaning and significance)
  • Creating difficulties in stopping or correcting dysfunctional behaviors

Meanwhile, impacts on the amygdala include changes in your fight or flight response, increased activation of the nervous system in dealing with a threat, and an intense remembrance of threats.

Person sitting with back to camera; Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

Recalling the case of the man who spent his childhood in foster homes, it’s not a leap to see how a traumatic childhood could impact his fight or flight response and cause him to choose to blow through six traffic lights to avoid the police. It doesn’t make his actions right, but it opens up a new dimension for understanding the case.

Traumatized Brains Participate in Problematic Behaviors

The dysfunction caused by trauma on the brain means that a person who experiences traumatic events usually needs help to identify the impact of trauma on their behaviors and in their emotional lives. Among children who demonstrate signs of trauma, it’s important for the adults in their lives (teachers, school administration, parents, and therapists) to recognize these behaviors for what they are and encourage positive interventions.

But what about adolescents and adults who do not get help early in life?

People who grow up with trauma and who don’t experience interventions surrounding that trauma can experience issues with attachment and relationships. Their emotional responses can also be complicated as they may internalize or externalize stress and struggle with anger, anxiety, and depression. These responses can intensify further as they encounter reminders of the traumatic event in their daily life. It’s also not uncommon to see issues with self-concept and self-worth: people often blame themselves for abuse, which generates low-self esteem that stops them from thinking about the potential for the future. 

All of these issues may sound like life experiences that everyone goes through — and to some extent they are — but when they are intense, they contribute to certain types of non-aggressive antisocial behaviors, like fraud, theft, and addiction.

Trauma Doesn’t Excuse Behavior — It Shows You How to Help

Trauma doesn’t excuse negligent or fraudulent behavior. It’s never an excuse for violence, and it wasn’t an excuse for the man who chose to drive dangerously and risk the lives of everyone else on the road. Even if he had only caused thousands of dollars in damage to her car and no lives were lost through his reckless behavior, there needed to be consequences.

At the same time, understanding the role of potential trauma is critical for preventing crime and reducing recidivism. By seeking only punitive measures, we not only ignore the large contribution trauma makes to antisocial behavior, but we also risk further traumatizing the individual. The incarceration experience is in itself scarring — whether incarceration is appropriate or not.

That’s why issues like criminal justice reform are so pressing — and by reform, we don’t necessarily mean increasing penalties as Florida has. Committing a crime — whether as a by-product of trauma or not — doesn’t negate a person’s humanity. It’s in everyone’s interest to consider the role of trauma in preventing antisocial behavior because, at the end of the day, trauma doesn’t discriminate. It could happen to you.

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