The Relationship between Trauma, Arrest, and Incarceration History among Black Americans: Findings from the National Survey of American Life

Soc Ment Health. 2016 Nov;6(3):187-206. doi: 10.1177/2156869316641730. Epub 2016 Oct 20.


Prior research indicates an association between exposure to trauma (e.g., being victimized) and perpetration of crime, especially in the context of chronic victimization. This study examines the relationship between trauma exposure, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and history of arrest and incarceration among a representative sample of black Americans from the National Survey of American Life (N = 5,189). One-third had a history of arrest, and 18 percent had a history of incarceration. Frequency of trauma exposure was associated with involvement with the criminal justice system. Relative to never experiencing trauma, experiencing ≥4 traumas was associated with elevated odds of arrest (odds ratio [OR] = 4.03), being jailed (OR = 5.15), and being imprisoned (OR = 4.41), all p <.01. PTSD was also associated with likelihood of incarceration among those with a history of trauma (OR = 2.18, p <.01). Both trauma exposure and trauma-associated psychopathology are associated with increased likelihood of arrest and incarceration in adulthood among black Americans.

Keywords: crime; posttraumatic stress disorder; trauma.