No system for identifying offenders with learning disabilities
We have never known what proportion of offenders have learning disabilities, although it may be as high as 30%. Perhaps the most important finding of the recent (26 March 2015) joint probation and prison inspection report is that we may never know, since neither probation services nor prisons consistently screen offenders to see if they have needs in this area.
The negative findings of this report stem largely from this lack of identification and the inspectors’ conclusion is pretty damning:
“The needs of people with learning disabilities were often missed. There were pockets of good practice and examples of staff developing supportive relationships and “going the extra mile”, but these were far too often the exception rather than the norm, both in prisons and the community.”
The inspection report is a profoundly depressing read, mainly because it identifies a lack of priority given to the issue of learning disability at every stage of the criminal justice system.
The main findings are:
- NOMS is developing a clear framework for practice and a range of tools.
- An adapted thinking skills programme is currently being piloted to meet the needs of offenders with learning disabilities both in prison and the community.
- However, guidance and policies on probation trusts and prisons were not detailed enough to support staff adequately.
- Even when guidance or screening tools were available, staff were often unaware of them or had not used them.
- Only a small number of probation and prison staff have received training in how to work with people with learning disabilities.
- Many offender managers did not update the disability section of NDelius or included incorrect information about the offender’s disability.
- Offender managers rarely used screening tools.
- OASys assessments either did not refer to the offender’s learning disability, or incorrectly assessed the effect that the disability might have on their offending behaviour.
- The inspectors did find an impressive level of commitment by most offender managers in their work with offenders with learning disabilities. However these staff often felt overwhelmed by the social care and welfare needs of the offender which took up most of the supervision time rather than work to address their offending behaviour.
- Given the lack of interventions for offenders with learning disabilities, it was not surprising that there was little evidence that work undertaken in the community or prison have reduced reoffending.
The inspectors, to their credit, do not mince their words about the poor state of current practice and provision with offenders who have learning disabilities:
“The failure to identify and engage appropriately with offenders with a learning disability places them at risk of reoffending and makes positive outcomes less likely.”
The inspection report certainly lays down a strong challenge to the new probation providers to improve substantially the quality of work with as many as 30% of their caseload.