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Offender management and rehabilitation

Neurodiversity in the criminal justice system

A person picks up a Catch22 Justice booklet from a chair. Overlaid is text that reads: "Wisdom Wednesdays: Justice Blog Series".

Neurodiversity is a term that refers to the different ways the brain can work and interpret information. It highlights that people naturally think about things differently: a neurodivergent brain functions, learns and processes information differently to that of a ‘neurotypical’ brain which functions and processes information in the way society expects. To be neurodivergent does not mean to be less intelligent.

Diagnoses including Dyslexia, Autism, Dyspraxia, Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Tourette’s are all conditions which are defined by the presence of a range of neurological differences. The neurological differences that someone with one of these diagnoses may experience can all range in severity, and something that affects an individual with one of these conditions may not affect someone else with the same condition.

What is neurodiversity like in the Criminal Justice System?

Research such as the ‘Neurodevelopmental disorders in prison inmates‘ study (2017) has found that 9% of prison inmates meet the criteria for autism, 25% meet the ADHD diagnostic, and 9% meet the screening criteria for learning difficulties.

A new report written by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, ‘Neurodiversity in the Criminal Justice System‘, (2021) suggests that it’s possible that half of people entering prison can “be expected to have some form of neurodivergent condition which impacts their ability to engage.”

However, due to inconsistency of assessments and the levels of knowledge and understanding of staff in custodial settings, the Chief of Prison’s report acknowledges that neurodivergent needs can be under-identified. The exact number of men in custody who have neurodivergent needs is therefore unknown.

As most people with neurological differences are undiagnosed, they often find the school environment challenging and face obstacles finding employment. In prison, the lack of programmes that have been tailored to their neurodivergence can mean that they aren’t able to effectively address their offending behaviour and do not receive the right preparation when they are released from prison. This can lead to being recalled to prison: recall to prison happens when an individual does not keep to the conditions of their licence.

What can be done?

The Chief of Prison’s report found that one of the biggest challenges for neurodiverse people in prison is the “low levels of awareness, understanding and confidence in relation to neurodiversity” of police, prison and probation staff. There is a need for better understanding of the range of conditions, how they may present, the types of challenges that neurodivergent people experience, the adjustments that can be made, and referral routes that are available to access additional support and diagnosis.

It is essential that people in prison with neurological differences are supported, so that they can overcome feeling misunderstood, barriers to employment and reoffending. Individuals with neurodivergence can often suffer with their mental health, alongside other challenges faced in prison, which makes having trained professionals even more important.

In their report, the Chief of Prisons sets out six recommendations for the Secretary of State of Justice. Their main recommendation is that the Government should take a cross-departmental approach to developing a strategy that will improve outcomes for neurodivergent people. It further recommends that this should be developed together with people with personal experience of neurodivergence, as they found that including them in the training was highly valued by those who had received it.

Naomi McGrath, Catch22 Social Justice and Rehabilitation Senior Operations Manager, supports this recommendation to be the most effective and says:

“I think that, as a general rule, when a new system or strategy is being developed, the priority should always be to involve those with personal experience of that system or process. In this case I believe that involving those with neurodivergent needs in the development of the strategy is absolutely key. Providing those who have been through the system with the opportunity to share personal experiences and making suggestions of ways in which to improve the future landscape for others is invaluable. Those who have this experience themselves have the best insight into the true impacts of a non-effective system and will be able to make vital suggestions as to how the strategy could be developed and improved.”

Some of the Chief of Prison’s other recommendations include:

  • A common screening tool for universal use within the criminal justice system, supported by an information sharing protocol which specifies how information should be appropriately shared within and between agencies,
  • Systematically collecting and aggregating screening data to provide a more accurate assessment of neurodivergence that can inform needs analysis and service planning at all levels of the criminal justice system,
  • The development and delivery of a programme of awareness-raising and specialist training to staff working within criminal justice services, and
  • Adjustments to meet the needs of those with neurodivergent conditions throughout the criminal justice system.
  • Criminal justice system agencies should work together and with other statutory and third sector organisations in a coordinated way.