Custody sergeants’ differences of understanding of learning disability led directly to differences in provision of support in custody


In 2008, the Prison Reform Trust carried out work on the issues facing people with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system, resulting in the ‘No One Knows’ report which suggested they faced ‘personal, systemic and routine’ discrimination from the point of arrest through to release from prison. One key finding was that  less than a third of vulnerable people received support from an appropriate adult during police interviews, with over a fifth interviewed not understanding what was going on, why they were in court or what they had done wrong.

This current study set out to look at whether the shortcomings outlined in reports such as No One Knows were the result of criminal justice professionals lacking necessary skills and competencies in identifying and dealing with people who have learning disabilities.

The researchers interviewed 15 custody sergeants from Cheshire, Merseyside and Greater Manchester regarding their opinions and attitudes towards offenders with learning disabilities.

The findings suggested there was a wide variation in understanding of what constituted learning disability, and that for those interviewed, learning disability was

constructed in relation to concepts of fairness and justice, which a custody sergeant may utilise in accordance with their perception of professional identity.”

The authors found that these differences of understanding led directly to differences in the provision of support to offenders with learning disabilities and consequently impacted on whether an appropriate adult was available to support the person with a learning disability at interview. They also suggest that pressure to reach performance targets added to the difficulties faced by custody sergeants and compromised the detainee’s need for support to be considered during initial processing.

Hellenbach, M. (2012), Learning disabilities and criminal justice: custody sergeants’ perceptions of alleged offenders with learning disabilities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40: 15–22

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John Northfield

After qualifying as a social worker, John worked in community learning disability teams before getting involved in a number of long-stay hospital closure programmes, working to develop individual plans for people moving into their own homes. He worked for BILD, helping to develop the Quality Network and was editorial lead for the NHS electronic library learning disabilities specialist collection. This led him to found the Learning Disabilities Elf site with Andre Tomlin as a way of making the evidence accessible to practitioners in health and social care. Most recently he has worked as part of Mencap's national quality team and also been involved in a number of national website developments, including the General Medical Council's learning disabilities site.

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