Criminal Justice

(Includes Delinquency, Violence, and Criminal Behavior)

Women and children in the criminal justice system show rates of childhood physical or sexual abuse that are comparable to rates in the mental health and substance abuse systems. Almost all murderers and sex offenders (male or female) have a history of childhood maltreatment.

Facts and Discussion Points:

* Victims of child sexual abuse are at increased risk of becoming prostitutes.1-3

* Childhood abuse or neglect increases the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 53%, as a young adult by 38%, and for violent crime by 38%.4

* Eighty percent of women in prison and jails have been victims of sexual and physical abuse.5

* Reenactment of victimization is a major cause of violence in society. Many violent adult criminals were physically or sexually abused as children.6-7

* The majority of murderers and sex offenders have a history of childhood maltreatment. The majority of women and men in the criminal justice system were abused as children.8

* One-third of individuals abused in childhood may abuse or neglect their own children. 9

* Of 16 men sentenced to death in California, a history of family violence was found in all cases. Fourteen were victims of severe childhood physical and/or sexual abuse. Individual impairments were found in 16 cases, including 14 with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, 13 with severe depression, and 12 with histories of traumatic brain injury; community isolation and violence occurred in 12 cases; and institutional failure in 15, including 13 cases of severe physical and/or sexual abuse while in foster care or under state youth authority jurisdiction. Interventions may have made a difference in reducing lethal violence and its precursor conditions.10

* Boys who experience or witness violence are 1,000 times more likely to commit violence than those who do not.11

* In 1998, 92% of incarcerated girls reported sexual, physical or severe emotional abuse in childhood.12

* A Maine study of 15 girls at Long Creek Youth Development Center (formerly Maine Youth Center), found 12 out of 15 girls to have a known history of early childhood trauma.13


*Teach trauma theory and tools in corrections settings.

* Empower corrections staff to use tools other than coercive control (which can increase reactivity among inmates)—see Seclusion and Restraint section.

Criminal Justice References

1-Browne, A., & Finkelhor, D. (1986). Impact of child sexual abuse: A review of the literature. Psychological Bulletin, 99:66-77.

2-Silbert, M. H., & Pines, A. M. (1991). Sexual child abuse as an antecedent to prostitution. Child Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 5(4): 407-411.

3-Prescott, L. (1998). Women emerging in the wake of violence. Los Angeles, CA: Prototype Systems Change Center.

4-Widom, C. S. (1995). Research in brief: Victims of childhood sexual abuse – later criminal consequences.

5-Smith, B. (April 1998). An end to silence: Women prisoners’ handbook on identifying and addressing sexual misconduct. National Women’s Law Center.

6-Groth, A. N. (1979). Men who rape: The psychology of the offender. New York, NY: Plenum publishers.

7-Seghorn, T. K., Boucher, R. J., & Prentky, R. A. (March 1987). Childhood sexual abuse in the lives of sexually aggressive offenders. American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry, Vol. 26(2), pp. 262-7.

8-National Commission to Prevent Child Abuse. (2000).

9-Kaufman, J., & Zigler, E. (April 1987). Do abused children become abusive parents? American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Vol. 57(2), pp. 186-92.

10-Freedman, D., & Hemenway, D. (2000). Precursors of lethal violence: A death row sample. Social Science and Medicine, pp. 1757-1770.

11-van der Kolk, B. A. (January 1998). Psychology and psychobiology of childhood trauma. Prax Kinderpsychol Kinderpsychiatr. Vol. 47(1), pp. 19-35.

12-DOC Juvenile Justice Recidivism Baseline Report for 1998.

13-Salisbury, N. (April 9, 2002). Report to the Children’s Cabinet: Girl’s Project