Criminal justice system

The current prison population represents a huge diversity of individuals with a range of very complex needs, including a high number who have mental health problems, learning difficulties or learning disabilities.

There are concerns firstly that people with learning disabilities who commit a crime are not getting a fair trial, and secondly that if found guilty, their sentencing may not take account of the reasonable adjustments which they may need in order to comply with the sentence.

Early identification and assessment of problems is vital for the effective and appropriate treatment of offenders.
Individuals with learning disabilities, learning difficulties, or people on the autistic spectrum may experience problems making sense of and coping with the criminal justice system.

This frequently results in higher levels of personal vulnerability and a greater potential for miscarriages of justice when contrasted with the experiences of the general population.

How many people with learning disabilities are in the criminal justice system?

Evidence from the Prison Reform Trust shows that up to 7% of adult prisoners have an IQ under 70, and another 25% have an IQ under 80 (this is higher in children and young people).

60% of prisoners have problems with communication - this may be a difficulty understanding others, expressing themselves, or both.

Around 25% of children that offend have an IQ less than 70, and around 5-10% of adult prisoners have a learning disability.

Issues facing offenders include the following:

  • People with learning disabilities may have limited understanding of what is going on at the time of arrest, detention and charging.
  • ‘Appropriate adults’ are not always available in timely fashion, and are not always well briefed about their role or aware of the specific support an individual may require. (This could be a relative, friend, guardian or related professional independent of the police who is able to offer information and advice to a vulnerable person who has been arrested and detained by the police).
  • Diversion from prosecution is a scheme that aims to remove those who have committed minor offences from the court process to social work or other agencies, however due to recent cuts to social services there is very little capacity to divert people with learning disabilities through alternative channels.
  • Having a fair trial – the probation service and courts need to consider what reasonable adjustments must be made to support offenders with a learning disability. Their rights may be protected under the disability equality duty contained in the Disability Discrimination Act.
  • The general prison regime (e.g. reception, induction, transfer and release) does not cater for the needs of prisoners with learning difficulties or learning disabilities. They may not be able to access initiatives such as The Thinking Skills Programme (PDF) to reduce re-offending because of their IQ level.
  • Health inequalities – people with learning disabilities are more likely to experience health problems. Some prisons have introduced health checks for prisoners with learning disabilities to ensure their health needs are being adequately addressed, but this is not yet standard practice.

People with learning disabilities are also at higher risk than the general population of experiencing mental health problems, creating multiple disadvantages.

Support for people when they leave prison - people with learning disabilities may qualify for support from community learning disability services (CLDS).  This support varies, however, from area to area.