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
I think it’s quite scary how ill informed people are about disability. A friend with cerebral palsy was recently in Tescos buying some wine when the assistant refused him, saying ‘he’d had enough’ misinterpreting his different speech pattern for drunken slurring.
I know another woman who was raped, but because she has a learning disability, was advised not to press charges as she would be deemed to be an ‘unreliable witness.’
I don’t think most people are necessarily inherently prejudiced, or unkind, they’re just uneducated and need training.
Hi Vicky, thanks for your comment. I agree, education is a powerful tool in combating ignorance about disability issues. I think the study shows how important it is for public bodies, like those in the criminal justice system to take training around supporting people with disabilities very seriously. john