Procedural Justice

In some cases, interactions with the court can become blurred for victim-defendants, at times supportive and other times punitive. Courts can enhance their response by adopting a trauma-informed approach, including incorporating procedural justice.

Key Concepts: What Is Procedural Justice?
Procedural justice (or fairness) refers to the equitable application of justice procedures and evenhanded interpersonal treatment of defendants and victims. Procedural justice includes the following critical dimensions for victims and defendants:
Voice:the opportunity to be heard.
Respect: preservation of dignity and self-respect in interactions with law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, attorneys, and court staff.
Trust and neutrality: view of the decision-making process as unbiased and trustworthy.
Understanding: full comprehension of the case process and outcomes as well as what is expected to comply with court orders.
Helpfulness: belief that the justice system players have an interest in victims' and defendants' needs and their personal situation.

Every justice system stakeholder—from an arresting officer first identifying a trafficking victim to a judge presiding over a criminal, juvenile, or civil court case—is in a position to send a message to human trafficking victims that the justice system is trustworthy, fair, and a place to seek help. Research strongly supports the conclusion that enhancing procedural justice also improves a victim's experience and long-term recovery, regardless of a particular outcome (e.g., conviction or acquittal). When they perceive fairness and respect from the court, victims are also more likely to engage meaningfully in the court process. This perceived fairness can lead victim-defendants to self-identify to trusted members of the court.

The following recommendations support incorporating procedural justice into court systems:

  1. Train stakeholders. Work with court stakeholders to build capacity around trauma-informed practices and to incorporate cultural competency.
  2. Increase access. Collaborate with courts to ensure that victims have a safe place, whether at the precinct, prosecutor's office, or the court. Instruct court advocates to assist victims in navigating the court process.
  3. Ensure understanding. Task force members who work directly with victims should ensure that they understand the court process and how it will impact them. Work with courts to have written materials available in multiple languages, and provide interpretation services for victims with limited English proficiency. If the case is disposed of, explain (in plain language) how the decision was made and what is expected of the victims going forward. Task forces offer the resources—such as cultural expertise, translators and interpreters, and victim advocates—for courts to implement these changes.
  4. Promote helpfulness.

    The Center for Court Innovation offers practical tips [PDF 431KB] to enhance procedural justice within court systems.

    Justice system stakeholders are uniquely positioned to be the first people to identify trafficking victims. Task force members can assist victims in understanding and responding to the courts and can provide emotional support. Ensure that all agency personnel—such as law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and court staff members—are familiar with available resources and can cross-refer potential victims.

For additional information and tools, visit the Resource page for Section 6.3 Trauma-Informed Courts.