Trauma-Informed Responses to Violence and Criminal Justice: An Interview with New Jersey Asst. Attorney General Wanda Moore

Fatimah Loren Muhammad & Wanda MooreRecently I spoke to Wanda Moore, an Assistant Attorney General in New Jersey and the Director of the Office of Community Justice, about her work to reduce trauma and violence through positive youth development programs, community-based crime prevention strategies, and system wide change. Ms. Moore leads cutting-edge, place-based solutions work in several cities in New Jersey including Trenton, Jersey City, and Newark. She attended EJUSA’s 2-day trauma train-the-trainer for criminal justice professionals in April, made possible by the generous support of the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.

(Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Fatimah Loren Muhammad: Thank you so much for speaking with me. What does a trauma-responsive justice system mean to you?

Wanda Moore: The overwhelming majority of people in the system are in the system because of some trauma they have experienced and their inability to cope with it. As a result, they may be using drugs, not taking care of themselves, or their mental health status may be impacted.

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Building the movement to disrupt the cycle of violence

Fatimah giving workshopShortly after last month’s tragic mass shooting in Orlando, the American Medical Association declared gun violence a public health issue.

EJUSA believes that this powerful frame applies to all violence. Public health models prioritize prevention, harm reduction, as well as trauma treatment. By completely changing the narrative on violence, its causes, and its solutions, we believe we will truly transform the justice system.

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The last 72 hours: a message from EJUSA Executive Director Shari Silberstein

The events of the last 72 hours have left us reeling. So much carnage, so much fear.

Justice, broken down into bite sized pieces, can sometimes feel so close within reach. The death penalty stopped here, more healing services there. And then we are confronted with these big moments that remind us how inadequate bite-sized justice can be. When transformation is needed, how do you break that down into “winnable bits” that sustain hope through the darkness? Is this even our task?

I don’t have the answers. I know that in the last two days I watched two children – a teenage boy cry for his father Alton Sterling and a four year girl try to comfort her mother after police killed Philando Castile. No child should ever have to go through that. Black children go through it all too often. The trauma of living in fear of the very systems and institutions that are supposed to protect runs deep through communities of color and has for centuries. As a white director, I don’t know that fear or that trauma. I can only see it, account for it, and commit my life to the struggle for change.

And police are often afraid in their jobs. And it is in that fear that I imagine the seeds for change – because this system isn’t working for anyone. There is a different way, a way where we all can see each other’s pain and trauma, where we embrace a model of community safety rooted in healing, in restoration, in mercy, in relationships, in love.

On a day when there are no words, I say to the families of Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarippa, Brent Thompson, Lorne Ahrens, and everyone who has lost a loved one to violence: I see you, I love you, and I will fight for you. To the black members of the EJUSA family: I see you, I love you, I will fight for you. And to the law enforcement members of the EJUSA family fighting for change: I see you, I love you, I will fight for you.

Stakeholders meet at White House to discuss race, trauma, and disrupting cycle of violence

EJUSA staff at the White House with Administrative staff Roy AustenEJUSA staff were at the White House last week with health and violence experts, discussing the national movement to frame and address violence as a public health issue.

Executive Director Shari Silberstein, Director of the Trauma Advocacy Initiative Fatimah Loren Muhammad, and Director of Campaigns and Strategy Laura Porter (pictured left with Roy Austin, Deputy Assistant to the President for the Office of Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity in the White House) shared EJUSA’s vision of a trauma-responsive justice system.

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Building a justice system rooted in healing

T'ruah Mass Incarceration HandbookEJUSA is thrilled to be featured in a new publication, “A Handbook for Jewish Communities Fighting Mass Incarceration,” by the Jewish human rights organization, T’ruah. The Handbook is a comprehensive guide for action from a Jewish perspective. It contains background information on various aspects of mass incarceration, from what happens when police stop people on the streets, to conditions inside jails and prisons, to the challenges people face when they leave incarceration and attempt to rebuild their lives.

Our contribution, “Building a justice system rooted in healing,” is written by EJUSA Executive Director Shari Silberstein. It includes EJUSA’s unique perspective on crime survivors’ needs:

In our work to end the death penalty over the last 25 years, we’ve met and worked with hundreds of family members who have lost loved ones to murder. Some supported the death penalty and others opposed it. But what united them all was the devastating trauma they experienced in the wake of their unimaginable loss…

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Recommended this week

“Recommended this week” features highlights from the past week in news about the death penalty, crime survivors, and trauma-informed responses to crime.

Meet the red-state conservatives fighting to abolish the death penaltyThe Washington Post
In college, Senator Colby Coash celebrated at a tailgate party outside of a prison during an execution. Now he’s part of the growing conservative movement to end the death penalty in the United States. In an in-depth article about that movement, The Washington Post interviews EJUSA staff members Heather Beaudoin and Marc Hyden, both part of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.
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Event: Veterans on Death Row

NYC BarTuesday, May 24, 6:30 pm – 8:30 pm NYC Bar Association, 42 West 44th St, NYC

Sponsored by the New York City Bar Association’s Committees on Capital Punishment and the Military Affairs & Justice

Although it is difficult to determine a precise number, it is estimated that approximately ten percent of the America’s 3000 Death Row inmates are veterans. This program will explore the pathology of the condemned veteran population. In particular, the mental health implications of military service and combat will be examined in in light of Supreme Court precedents such as Porter v. McCollum. Among the issues to be discussed will be the effects of Traumatic Brain Injury, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and military culture. The panel will also reflect upon what factors should be considered in determining the appropriate sentence for veterans convicted of capital crimes.

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Increasing access to help for crime survivors – where it’s most needed

honoring victimsThis week is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. The theme this year is Serving Victims. Building Trust. Restoring Hope., which highlights the need for early intervention and victims services that build trust with crime survivors, and creates hope that healing is possible.

We’ve been working with crime survivors for over 10 years. And what we’ve learned from them over and over again is that these services – and a commitment to healing – remain out of reach for the vast majority of them.

Crime survivors aren’t getting the help they need

The numbers agree – estimates are that more than 90% of crime survivors don’t access any victims services. You read that right: 90% of the people in the U.S. who’ve been hurt, robbed, shot, assaulted, abused, raped, or had a family member murdered got no formal help to process their trauma, cope with their grief, or rebuild their lives in even practical ways.

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Violence & crime victims’ trauma are a public health issue: A new message for National Crime Victims’ Rights Week

Apply public health values to a broken criminal justice system

Contact: Jon Crane Phone/Email 203-982-4575

Sunday April 10th will mark the start of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week (April 10-16) and this year’s theme – Serving Victims, Building Trust, Restoring Hope – is intended to highlight the need for victims services that will promote trust, healing, and recovery.

But for too many crime survivors, those services and ideals remain out of reach. Equal Justice USA, a national organization working to transform the justice system to one that heals and restores lives, recently launched a new initiative aimed at addressing the trauma of crime survivors, particularly in communities of color where there has been disparate access to resources.

“Our goal is to move towards a justice system that can actually promote health, rehabilitation, and healing,” said Fatimah Loren Muhammad, Director of EJUSA’s Trauma Initiative. “We are working to develop a justice system that operates according to public health values of prevention, harm reduction, and trauma-informed care.”

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Expanding partnerships between public health and justice transformation

public health and justice EJUSA recently secured its first-ever partnership with a health foundation – signaling a new leap forward in efforts to link public health and criminal justice.

There has been a lot of national discussion about the need to treat violence as a public health issue, or to use a public health approach to justice reform. But what does that mean, exactly? And how to translate that important dialogue into action?

EJUSA, with the generous support of the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey (HFNJ), will explore those questions in a new pilot program on trauma in Newark, New Jersey. HFNJ is a foundation dedicated to reducing disparities in healthcare in Newark. This investment in justice system transformation represents an exciting new area of commitment for the foundation.
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