November 21 2023

Support for neurodivergent people ‘patchy’ and ‘inconsistent’, say justice watchdogs

Support for neurodivergent people ‘patchy’ and ‘inconsistent’, say justice watchdogs

Beyond the Wall, HMP Glenochil, Koestler Trust

Half of people entering prison could have some form of neurodivergent condition including autism, brain injury and learning difficulties which impacts their ability to engage, according to a new report by three criminal justice inspectorates which highlights ‘serious gaps’ in support.

In the foreword to the new 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 call provision ‘patchy, inconsistent and uncoordinated’ and argue that ‘too little is being done to understand and meet the needs of individuals’.

‘We 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,’ the report says. ‘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.’

The review, commissioned by the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland after the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that the system was failing many disabled people, concluded there was ‘no guarantee that a neurodivergent person coming into contact with the criminal justice system will have their needs identified, let alone met, at any stage of the process’.

At every step in the criminal justice system, the inspectors found failures to share relevant information, with ‘consistently low levels’ of staff awareness on neurodiversity. ‘I have worked for Probation for almost 20 years and do not recall ever having received any training about working with neurodiversity,’ it was said by one respondent.

The inspectors found that the effectiveness of custody risk assessments varied, with an officer’s experience with neurodiversity being a factor in the outcome. ‘I’d tried to tell the police about my condition but they weren’t interested,’ said one prisoner, who was interviewed for the report. Those with neurodivergent needs can be seen as ‘difficult’ by officers, the report noted, but ‘it would perhaps be more useful to reflect on how difficult the justice system is for those with neurodivergent needs’.

The report also found that young people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds were less likely to be identified with learning difficulties on reception to prison. Estimates suggest that neurodiverse conditions are three times more common in the criminal justice system than in the general population.

A criminal defence solicitor, who responded to the review’s call for evidence, said: ‘There is widespread ignorance in the court system amongst legal professionals including lawyers, judges and magistrates.’ A co-ordinated and cross-government approach to improve outcomes for neurodivergent people within the criminal justice is needed, according to the report, and its recommendations include the development of neurodiversity awareness programmes for staff, the creation of a screening tool and an information sharing protocol, and low-cost changes to create neurodiversity-friendly environments.

In September 2020, a report found that almost four out of 10 adult suspects in police custody had a mental disorder, but the need for an appropriate adult to be present was recorded in only 6.2% of custody interviews and in voluntary interviews the rate was even lower at 3.5%. There were also calls to end remote legal advice for vulnerable suspects in police stations.

According to the report, about 5–7% of those referred to liaison and diversion services have an autistic spectrum condition. ‘Within prisons the prevalence of autistic ‘traits’ or ‘indicators’ could be around three times as high (16% and 19% respectively),’ it says. ‘Around a quarter of prisoners are thought to meet the ADHD diagnostic criteria.’ One brain injury charity (Headway) reckons that ‘around half the prison population have suffered a traumatic brain injury’.

The chief inspectors make six recommendations including designing a ‘common screening tool for universal use within the criminal justice system’ backed by an information-sharing protocol specifying how information should be appropriately shared between agencies to allow for adjustments and support.