If the experiences of people with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system could be summed up in two words, those words would be confusion and isolation. This is the bleak picture which emerges from Hyun et al’s (2014) synthesis of research studies which have focused on the experiences of people with learning disabilities who have faced arrest and served time in jail.
There are no reliable estimates of the number of people with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system in any country, though prevalence studies in the UK and the US have consistently shown that they are over-represented and could make up anywhere between 10% and a staggering 60% of the prison population.
The problem with making such estimates is one of definition, with the studies which have used psychometric testing to seek to estimate numbers in the population finding a figure closer to 30%.
Hyun at al (2014) describe a range of factors which have emerged from a number of studies which show that people with learning disabilities tend to commit less serious crimes and serve shorter custodial sentences than others in the criminal justice system, but that they have much higher rates of recidivism.
The authors argue that there are many factors which contribute to the over-representation of people with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system and that these relate to their often poorer life circumstances; lower rates of education and employment, poverty, lower socio-economic status, lack of supports and social isolation than the general population. People with learning disabilities enter the criminal justice system with disadvantages which make accessing their rights and engaging with opportunities to assist them to leave the system and not return, extremely difficult.
The authors noted that the voices of people with learning disabilities are not often heard in the criminal justice system. They decided to look for their voices in research and examined those studies which presented first-person accounts to answer the question; how do people with learning disabilities experience the criminal justice system?
They searched across all of the relevant research finding only four such studies; two from the UK and two from the US. A total of 232 people with learning disabilities participated in those four studies.
Three consistent themes emerged.
- Firstly, that the study participants were bewildered by their experience of the criminal justice system. Most did not understand what was happening to them and they were fearful. Many did not know why they had been arrested and did not understand that arrest may lead to imprisonment. Under interrogation by the police, many said that they did not understand the questions they were being asked or that anything they said may be used as evidence against them.
- The second theme which emerged was that the participants felt that they were alone in the system and without support. Whilst in custody there was no one to talk to or answer even basic questions, with one saying ‘I don’t get anything offered and I never ask’. There was uncertainty amongst the participants about what was going to happen to them when they left prison and a lack of knowledge about the availability of support services in the community. For the younger participants, the negative expectations of others were a major barrier, with some saying that they felt that others in the community had fixed perceptions of them as troublemakers destined to fail.
- Thirdly, the authors highlighted the linked theme of social isolation for individuals transitioning to the community after incarceration. With little support, many returned to ‘old friends’ and found it very difficult in the absence of alternatives to avoid drifting back into risky activities and associations which may have been the original cause of their arrest.
Conclusion and Comment
The extreme vulnerability of the participants was evident in all of the studies examined by Huyn et al (2014). An Australian study published by Ellem et al (2012) observed that people have very few ‘personal resources’ to assist them to cope with the traumatic situation of incarceration. The lack of support and access to information led to fear and confusion for the participants and it appeared that they were placed in situations where their legal and human rights were not always respected. In all of the settings described by the participants; the police station, prison and in the community, they experienced a terrible sense of isolation, and the transition between the settings was so poorly supported that it seemed to reinforce their sense of hopelessness.
Hyun et al (2014) argue that such adverse experiences can be made more ‘tolerable’ or even prevented. They argue that there is a need for ‘practical measures’ to address awareness, positive support and understanding of the needs of people with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system. Better access to both formal and informal support measures is essential to address the high levels of isolation and confusion described by the research participants.
The authors argue that effective advocacy is the key to ensuring that the rights of people with learning disabilities are respected within the criminal justice system and to create a situation where hopelessness is not the defining feature of people’s lives once they have entered the system but rather that they might be able to have access to the resources they need to create a better life.
The extremely high prevalence estimates of people with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system suggest that it is urgent that more is done to protect and advance their rights. More research to evaluate support and advocacy services with the goal of improving access to justice for people with learning disabilities may be a good place to start.
Hyun, E., Hahn, L., & McConnell, D. (2014) Experiences of people with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42(4), pp 308-314 [abstract]
Ellem, K., Wilson, J & Chiu, WH. (2012) Effective responses to offenders with intellectual disabilities: generalist and specialist services working together. Australian Social Work, 65(3), pp 398-412 [abstract]