Childhood trauma can be predictor of later crises, incarceration

MILWAUKEE – Standing in a hospital room, Marlin Dixon looked down at his father, knowing it would be the last time.

Bloated, pale and unable to speak, Anthony Dixon was dying.

“I wanted to feel sad, but I was conflicted. I went numb a little bit and I couldn’t find the words. My momma told him that she did love him and that he would be missed, and I remember my siblings crying, but I wasn’t, ”Marlin Dixon said. “I didn’t say anything.”

He was 13 years old, his father had abused him for years, and he had grown up in an environment that we now know to be a textbook example of trauma. Within two years, Dixon fathered a child, participated in a mob beating death and was sentenced in an adult court to 18 years in prison.

Anthony Dixon and Dorothy Williams, parents of Marlin Dixon in this undated family photo.
Anthony Dixon and Dorothy Williams, parents of Marlin Dixon in this undated family photo.
Photo courtesy of Marlin Dixon

Marlin Dixon: He went to prison at 15 for a killing that appalled the nation. Now free, he wants to prove his life has value.

Shortly before his release in 2020, he took – for the first time – the ACE test, a universally accepted measurement of adverse childhood experiences.

Most versions of the test ask 10 basic yes-or-no questions. When you were growing up, did a parent or adult in the house beat you? Touch you sexually? Ignore or humiliate you? Were any of them alcoholics? Drug users? Imprisoned? Suicidal?

A person scoring four or more is at “high risk” of struggling with depression and addiction, and enters adulthood with less ability to manage stress, navigate relationships and maintain employment. For those who score six or higher, life expectancy drops 20 years.

Ideally, a person would have zero “yes” responses. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six adults score four or higher.

Dixon scored an eight.

Youths are more vulnerable to trauma because they lack the power to respond and lack the understanding and maturity to know how to cope with the wrong done to them, said Yael Danieli, a psychologist who founded and directs the International Center for Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma.

Marlin Dixon did not take the ACE test until he had almost completed an 18-year prison sentence.  He scored an 8 out of 10, which indicates a high degree of trauma growing up.
Marlin Dixon did not take the ACE test until he had almost completed an 18-year prison sentence. He scored an 8 out of 10, which indicates a high degree of trauma growing up.
Angela Peterson / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“These traumas are passed down from generation to generation, and unless the cycle is broken through a resilient person or through counseling, then the person being abused will continue this behavior,” she said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Higher scores are not uncommon for people who are, or have been, incarcerated, and Black people are overrepresented in that population.

The problem shows up early. Black youths are more than four times as likely as their white peers to be detained or committed in juvenile facilities, according to nationwide data released last year and reported by The Sentencing Project.

Further, 41% of youths in some form of placement – detention centers, residential treatment centers, group homes, youth prisons – are Black, even though they make up only about 15% of all youths in the United States.

In Wisconsin, Connecticut, New Jersey and the District of Columbia, Black youths were at least 10 times more likely to be held in placement than white youth, The Sentencing Project reported.

The numbers tilt further when it comes to moving juveniles to adult court. Nationally, Black youths were 85 times more likely than white youths to be prosecuted in adult court, as of the most recent data available.

“I don’t think a child at the age of 14 should be tried as an adult,” Daniel said. “Their brains are not fully developed, and especially if they have endured trauma. It doesn’t make sense to me. ”

Sending a juvenile to prison with men serves no purpose unless you want them to learn from men to become better criminals, she said.

“We have already lost a whole generation because we have failed to deal with the ugly truths to stop the cycle, the generational cycle,” said Brenda Wesley, a member of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Board and former city outreach coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Wesley said the only way we can address the “ugly truths” faced by the likes of Dixon is to embed mental health treatment into every part of a child’s life, from schools to social service agencies.

“It starts by asking them what happened to them, instead of what’s wrong with them,” she said.

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Milwaukee re-examining sentences for youths

In 2019, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office partnered with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee – one of the oldest public-interest law firms in the nation – for a project called the Public Interest Justice Initiative. They reviewed the cases of 50 people sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed when they were children to determine eligibility for early release and parole.

The initiative was launched after the Remington Center at the University of Wisconsin Law School found that more than half of the 128 people serving life sentences for juvenile offenses were from Milwaukee County. The idea is to see if adjustments should be made, said District Attorney John Chisholm.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm is seen at his office.  Chisholm said that the criminal justice system has undergone a sea change, especially when it comes to sentencing juveniles.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm is seen at his office. Chisholm said that the criminal justice system has undergone a sea change, especially when it comes to sentencing juveniles.
Angela Peterson / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

As disturbing as the numbers are today, court systems have actually made a greater attempt than in years past to be less heavy-handed and find the proper balance of punishment and rehabilitation, Chisholm said. Since 90% of those incarcerated eventually are released, the goal is to give them enough rehabilitation and support to address the issues that caused them to get incarcerated in the first place, so they don’t end up behind bars.

Removing someone from a family has a tremendous impact on the family structure, Chisholm said, and locking away young people for decades can isolate them from family contact and support.

Most of the cases predated in 2005, when the US Supreme Court began issuing a series of rulings that found – as far as juveniles are concerned – death sentences, mandatory life sentences and life without password sentences for anything less than homicide violate the Constitution.

Those court decisions relied on new scientific understanding of adolescent brain development, suggesting teens are more susceptible to peer pressure, more prone to rash reactions to stress, and more likely to change outlooks and behaviors with age and treatment.

This is how the program can work:

Phillip Torsrud was 16 when he was found guilty in the killing of Francisco Questell, 19, in 1990. Questell’s sister, Raquel Questell, told a judge that although she will never forget the day her brother – a popular Milwaukee DJ – was killed, she believed after three decades of incarceration, Torsrud was reformed and remorseful.

She did not oppose an early release from the life sentence he was given.

Torsrud, now 46, was released from the Waupun Correctional Institution in January 2021. Torsrud is on active community supervision, according to online court records.

While there are some who are too violent to be released, Chisholm said that is not the case for the majority. Chisholm knows modifying a sentence can impact the victim and the victim’s family, but they said studies have shown it’s a myth that people in prison for violent crimes are too dangerous to be released.

Looking back at old cases “is the right thing to do,” Chisholm said. “If we see something egregious (in the length of sentences) our hope is to address it.”

Chisholm becomes irritated when such an approach is labeled “soft on crime.”

“When people say we’re being soft on crime, I ask them: What does that really mean? Most of the time they can’t really say.

“This partnership isn’t about being soft on crime,” they said. “It’s about giving people a chance.”

James E. Causey and Angela Peterson
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