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Tagged In:  Prisons, Youth offending
Recent research by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) paints an interesting picture of the high proportion of children in the criminal justice system who have brain injuries and impairments. 

With young people in custody four times as likely to have suffered a serious head injury prior to imprisonment, the CCJS commissioned report calls for more coordinated interventions. This, it is hoped, will help prevent the unnecessary criminalisation of children and young people with neurodevelopmental impairment. 

The report recommends those young people should be subject to interventions at a much earlier stage and this should be led by health and education practitioners. This, the authors concede, will prevent those with disruptive behavior linked to their medical condition from entering the criminal justice system in the first place. 

Co-authored by Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Dr Prathiba Chitsabesan, and Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, Dr Nathan Hughes, the report makes some important observations:



  • Between 60-90% of young people in custody experience problems with speech, language or hearing that have significantly impacted upon their academic performance. This is compared with 5-7% of the general youth population
  • 23-32% of young people in custody have a learning disability, compared with 2-4% of the general youth population
  • 12% also showed multiple symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity and/or impulsivity.
That’s not to say that those young people with neurodevelopmental impairments are going to commit crime. Rather, the authors point out that some of the disruptive behaviours that have resulted in young people coming into the criminal justice system are likely to be linked to their specific medical condition, although there are other influencing factors to consider. 

The authors quite rightly emphasise that there is no ‘single or predominant explanation for criminality’, and that the paper signifies a call for these young people to be given the right support earlier on in their development. For example, cognitive or social-affective impairment, they say, could be “misinterpreted as a behavioural problem and, on this basis, the child may attract inaccurate and inappropriate labels and responses”, which makes them more prone to engaging in criminal activity. 

The findings themselves are not new though. The Children’s Commissioner expressed similar concerns in its 2012 report ‘Nobody made the connection: The prevalence of neurodisability in young people who offend’. In response, the Department of Health and Youth Justice Board introduced a new section on neurodisability within the Comprehensive Health Assessment Tool (CHAT) for youth offending officers to identify the specific needs of a young person. 

However, as the authors of the report point out:

“The recent introduction of the CHAT tool in custodial and, latterly, some community settings offers the potential to address this by supporting recognition of ‘neurodisability’ (Offender Health Research Network, 2013). However, screening is insufficient in itself and is occurring too late, if at the point of custody, or any criminal justice intervention.”

What’s being recommended is that children who show early signs of neurodevelopmental problems should be routinely assessed for any underlying cognitive and emotional needs, not simply to reduce offending but to promote better educational outcomes. 

This is something the Children’s Commissioner has in the past been keen to support, advocating that the Department for Education and Public Health England should support the implementation of assessment framework for schools and education support services, to provide early identification of neurodisability among those with behavioural difficulties. 

It’s quite a complicated process though, since the needs resulting from neurodevelopmental impairments are often complex and require clinical assessment and involvement from mental health professionals and educational psychologists. It is as the authors’ state, “not simply the responsibility of schools”, but more has got to be done to help youth offending professionals and prevent those young people who need support from entering the criminal justice system in the first place. 

We’ll have to wait and see what the government’s response to the report will be, if indeed it decides to respond directly. We could, however, see additional reference to neurodevelopmental impairment and how earlier identification could help reduce reoffending when the Ministry of Justice reports back on its review of the Youth Justice System later this Summer. 
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