Date of Award

Summer 2019

Project Type


Program or Major

Justice Studies

Degree Name

Master of Arts

First Advisor

David Finkelhor

Second Advisor

Ellen Cohn

Third Advisor

Donna Perkins


The ten Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have been shown to have an association with future health outcomes and criminal conduct (Felitti et al., 1998; Cannon, Davis, Hsi, & Bochte, 2016). While some scholars and practitioners seek to use these findings to formulate a more “trauma-informed” orientation towards criminal behavior, others are skeptical towards this perceived expansion of the “abuse excuse” into the criminal justice domain. This study used a multi-methodological design to explore attitudes towards offenders who have experienced the ACEs. The researcher distributed a survey containing fictional vignettes to 302 participants. The results revealed that participants gave more lenient sentences to offenders who experienced physical neglect and more punitive sentences to offenders who experienced divorce in the childhood home when compared to the sentences given to offenders with no described ACE history (i.e., the control vignette). These findings were consistent between both male and female offenders. However, participants also gave more lenient sentences to female offenders who experienced sexual abuse when compared to the sentences given to female offenders with no described ACE history, whereas no significant relation between childhood sexual abuse and lenient sentences for male offenders was found. Participants rated sexual abuse as the most harmful and divorce as the least harmful ACE. Next, qualitative data from 6 voluntary semi-structured follow-up interviews indicated that nonprofessionals have highly nuanced views about the ACE outcomes as well as the intersection between childhood adversity and criminal justice. These findings suggest that an ACE’s perceived harmfulness is not a reliable predictor of lenience or punitiveness in sentencing for individuals who have experienced that ACE, and that sentencing decisions are made within a more complicated system that involves other factors such as the gender of the offender. Moreover, this study complicates the “abuse excuse” assumption which suggests that people may change their punitive orientation towards criminal behaviors once information about an offender’s adverse childhood history is disclosed; only some ACEs have a relation with lenient sentencing, some (like divorce) have a relation with punitive sentencing, while other ACEs did not significantly change sentencing attitudes at all.