More effective support needed
The government has been urged to develop more coordinated and effective support for people with neurodivergent conditions – including autism, traumatic brain injury and learning difficulties and disabilities – in the criminal justice system. Today’s report by three criminal justice inspectorates says better assessment, treatment and support could “help break the cycle affecting too many: of crime, arrest, court, prison, probation and reoffending.”
Their report identified patchy data collection and inconsistent assessments and staff training and knowledge. The scale of the problem, and the extent to which neurodivergent people may be over-represented in the system, are difficult to assess but, the report notes, perhaps half of those entering prison could reasonably be expected to have some form of neurodivergent condition which impacts their ability to engage.
The Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, commissioned a review of neurodiversity by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons), which led the project, and HM Inspectorate of Probation (HMIP), with support from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS). The aim was to understand what is currently known and being done and to make recommendations for further action from the government.
In a joint forward to the report, Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Justin Russell, HM Chief Inspector of Probation and Sir Thomas Winsor, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, said the review “found evidence of good local partnerships and heard about many simple adjustments that could easily be made to support neurodivergent people in the criminal justice system.”
However, they added, “it is clear that such provision is patchy, inconsistent and uncoordinated, and that too little is being done to understand and meet the needs of individuals. This report concludes that with more effective assessment of need, adaptation of services and better training of staff it is possible to support those with neurodivergent conditions.”
The report makes recommendations, including an overarching one about coordination by government ministries, to “set a course” for ministers on what needs to be done. The Chief Inspectors added: “It will take time and commitment to make the changes that we suggest, but we believe that it is possible to transform the experiences and outcomes for those with neurodivergent needs.”
The report identified difficulties for those with neurodivergent conditions at every stage in the criminal justice process from arrest to release from prison. There were failures to transfer or share relevant information at every stage in the system.
The report recommended better neurodiversity screening of those in the CJS because “currently there are different approaches to screening – some more effective than others – and substantial gaps.” Consistent screening would improve global understanding of the scale of the problem and identify needs at a local level.
The inspectors note that there is no reliable, consistent or systematic data collection, either within individual services or across the CJS as a whole, which can tell us about the extent of neurodiversity. However, based on the evidence provided to their review, they estimate that “perhaps half of those entering prison could reasonably be expected to have some form of neurodivergent condition which impacts their ability to engage”.
The inspectors highlighted the need for screening, partly to develop a better understanding of the prevalence of neurodiversity, but primarily to identify individual needs so that they can be met. Currently there are different approaches to screening – some more effective than others – and substantial gaps where opportunities to identify need, or divert an individual from the CJS, have been missed. They found failures to transfer or share relevant information at every stage in the system and concluded that “there is certainly no guarantee that a neurodivergent person coming into contact with the CJS will have their needs identified – let alone met – at any stage of the process”.
A survey of police, prison and probation staff revealed consistently low levels of awareness, understanding and confidence in relation to neurodiversity. The report noted: “While there is no expectation that frontline staff should become ‘experts’ in neurodiversity, they do need (and want) a greater understanding of the range of conditions and how they may present.” Alongside the need for more formal support and training, the report added, “people involved in the CJS made a powerful plea for criminal justice staff to simply make full use of their ‘soft skills’ – listening, empathy and compassion. By routinely asking questions, and listening to the answers, many immediate needs could be understood and met.”
Environmental and sensory adjustments
The report identified a range of environmental and sensory adjustments to ease distress for people with neurodivergent conditions and support them to engage. These ranged from dimmed lights, eye masks and earplugs to quiet and uncluttered areas of custody and the provision of distraction packs and stress balls. Simplifying criminal justice written jargon was identified as an important factor, reflecting the general need to use language and communications to ensure people understand what is happening to them in the criminal justice process.
The authors of the report were struck by the number of times the word ‘difficult’ was used in evidence, most commonly in relation to perceptions of the behaviour of neurodivergent people.
“It would perhaps be more useful to reflect on how ‘difficult’ the CJS is for people with neurodivergent needs, and what could be done to change this.”
A number of contributors to the report expressed a desire for the CJS to become neurodiversity-informed in the same way that some of its services are aspiring to become trauma-informed. A more inclusive culture where neurodivergence is understood, accepted and destigmatised would benefit everybody in the CJS – including staff who may have neurodivergent needs themselves.
This important report has identified serious gaps, failings and missed opportunities at every stage of the system. Such patchy and inconsistent provision represents a serious failing in a system which aspires to dispense justice fairly to all its citizens.
The inspectors point out that one of the MoJ’s own equality, diversity and inclusion objectives is ‘Fair treatment, fair outcomes and equal access for all our service users’. The report makes it clear that this is manifestly not being achieved for all neurodivergent people.
Thanks to “That’s her Business” for permission to use the header image, previously published on Unsplash.