Trauma-informed courts work to keep people in treatment, out of justice system

Judge Kate Lynch and Judge Michael A. Russell participated in a panel discussion March 8 as part of Alive & Thrive Wyandotte County’s efforts to promote trauma-informed practices in the community

Courtrooms are no strangers to trauma. This includes the trauma many defendants experience throughout their lives, and the trauma they experience in court as they stand before a judge. In Wyandotte County District Court, these realities are beginning to inform the work judges do when encountering defendants who live with behavioral health challenges.

Call them “trauma-informed courts,” as Judge Kate Lynch does in her care and treatment docket, or “Behavioral Health Court,” the designated name for a docket over which Judge Michael A. Russell presides. Both judges participated in a panel discussion March 8 as part of Alive & Thrive Wyandotte County’s efforts to promote trauma-informed practices in the community. Alive & Thrive, a Healthy Communities Wyandotte Action Team, also raises awareness about the impact traumatic experiences and Adverse Childhood Experiences have on the county’s overall health.

Sadly, many who have experienced trauma end up in the criminal justice system. Judge Lynch and Judge Russell recognize that if these people are going to stop cycling in and out of their courtrooms they need to help their defendants find a path to recovery rather than simply hand out sentences.

In fact, Judge Lynch and Judge Russell stressed that they don’t refer to the people they see as “defendants.” Rather, they are “clients” or “patients” or “participants.” Language, as Judge Lynch said, matters. It shapes perceptions and defines relationships. To use “trauma-informed” language is to recognize that the person in the courtroom is often someone whose experiences in life have overwhelmed his or her ability to cope.

Judge Lynch has been using a trauma-informed approach for several years. One of her hallmarks: she doesn’t wear a judge’s robe before her clients. “If that was the one simple thing that could reduce trauma so we could begin a conversation, I was willing to do it,” she said.

Judge Russell recently adopted the same practice in his Behavioral Health Court, where he works strictly with people who have a mental illness and who are on probation. The court, in partnership with Wyandot Center for Behavioral Healthcare, helps participants create individualized treatment plans and connects them with community-based services.

Before launching the court last year, Judge Russell said he noticed that a large number of probation revocations had one thing in common: They involved defendants with mental illness. “No one wanted to talk about the elephant in the room, which was many had mental health issues,” Judge Russell said. “So I started asking questions.”

Both judges said they work hard not to intimidate their clients. They conduct discussions across a table rather than from behind a bench that sits several inches above the courtroom floor. When a client successfully completes his or her treatment orders, Judge Lynch offers a hug; Judge Russell a handshake.  

Although Judge Russell said it’s too early to assess results, he said the approach in his Behavioral Health Court has had an impact on the people he’s seen so far. Two of his three clients are making progress and appear to have found a path to recovery. Judge Lynch has seen a dramatic reduction in the number of people she has had to commit to Osawatomie State Hospital: from a high of 156 commitments in 2007 to a low of 102 in 2015.

These are the results both judges want to see. They show that courtrooms aren’t always about doling out punishments—that they can also be used to help people find a way to leave the criminal justice system so that they never return.

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