I felt it important to co-author this briefing with Dr Prathiba Chitsabesan, as part of the Centre’s Justice Matters initiative, due to the growing body of research evidence consistently demonstrating the disproportionate prevalence of neurodevelopmental impairments and clinical disorders among young people in custody. These include young people with learning disability, communication disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, foetal alcohol syndrome, and autism.
It is deeply concerning that the youth justice system – and the custodial estate in particular – has become the primary service provider for large numbers of young people with significant emotional or cognitive impairments. It suggests that as a society we are failing to prevent conviction and re-conviction among these young people, and therefore potentially criminalising on the basis of impairment. This is clearly inappropriate, and so we must radically rethink how we support these vulnerable young people.
By drawing on research and clinical expertise, we can better understand how an array of factors and experiences affecting young people with neurodevelopmental impairments serve to increase the risk of being drawn into criminal justice. This includes appreciating how functional difficulties related to cognition, learning, communication, and emotion, that are symptomatic of neurodevelopmental impairment, can give rise to the expression of problem behaviour in particular social situations, and responding appropriately through tailored, specialist support.
We can also ensure that our systems and services can better recognise and respond to signs and symptoms of neurodevelopmental impairment so as reduce criminal justice involvement. In particular we need to apply screening and assessment early in schools, and provide sustained support and interventions to maintain engagement in education, including, where necessary, through specialist professionals, such as educational psychologists, child and adolescent mental health professionals, and speech therapists. We also need to be aware of the significant challenges facing parents and families, so as to offer the support needed to enable them to maintain an effective and consistent level of care.
Increasingly we have the knowledge and understanding through which to recognise and respond effectively to the needs of young people with neurodevelopmental impairment. By applying this knowledge through effective and timely support, we can greatly reduce the numbers of young people with impairment caught up in the youth justice system, and in doing so help families, support educational engagement and improve life outcomes. Dr Chitsabesan and I hope this briefing encourages policy makers and practitioners to reconfigure services to prevent future criminalisation.
Dr Nathan Hughes is Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Policy at the University of Birmingham, and Marie Curie Research Fellow at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Melbourne. His current research examines the relationship between neurodevelopmental impairment and experiences of criminality and criminalisation, as well as criminal justice responses to young adults.
Dr Prathiba Chitsabesan is a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester and the Manchester Academic Health Science Centre. She has a special interest in research exploring the needs of young offenders and the subsequent implications for policy and practice. As a member of the Offender Health Research Network she has been involved in the development of the Comprehensive Health Screening Tool for the Department of Health and Youth Justice Board.