Needs of people with learning disabilities in criminal justice system not being met

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We know that people with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system can be especially vulnerable, and the recent Bradley report highlighted a number of approaches that could be taken to prevent this vulnerable group being caught in the revolving door of the criminal justice system.

It is unclear however how many people with learning disabilities might be in the system as a result of no clear agreement across agencies about definitions.


A report of a joint inspection of the treatment of offenders with learning disabilities has now just been published, looking at what happens to people from arrest to sentence. The inspection team looked at what happened in police stations, through the process of prosecution and into the courts, pre-sentence report preparation and the assessment and planning undertaken at the start of a community order.


What they found was

  • poor screening at the police arrest stage
  • lack of training for medical or psychiatric professionals
  • focus on the learning disability meant the individual was often ‘lost’ in the process
  • offenders with learning disabilities were not receiving support they required to reduce risk of harm to others or likelihood of reoffending
  • appropriate adults were not always available
  • only one police force had access to a diversion scheme for offenders before arrest
  • some areas had diversion schemes within the court building rather than before
  • in two-thirds of cases the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was not provided with information regarding the offender’s learning disability
  • pre-sentence reports were not always based on an appropriate risk/needs assessment
Multi-agency inspection report from police stations to process of prosecution

Multi-agency inspection report from police stations to process of prosecution

The authors point out that Bradley recommended intervention at the police stage in the offender pathway as the best opportunity to effect change, but this inspection report suggests that this has yet to be implemented.


The authors conclude that “At all points in the criminal justice process, up to and including the point of sentence the treatment of people with learning difficulties could be significantly improved,”  including identification of a learning disability, sharing that information appropriately and taking account of the nature and effect an offender’s learning disability may have had, on their offending.

The report authors make a number of recommendations for Police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service, the Department of Health and NHS England (Health and Justice),  HM Courts and Tribunals Service,  Probation Trusts and the Ministry of Justice to ensure that all agencies concerned understand the offending and support-related needs of offenders with learning disabilities


A joint inspection of the treatment of offenders with learning disabilities within the criminal justice system – phase 1 from arrest to sentence

A Joint Inspection by HMI Probation,  HMI Constabulary, HM Crown Prosecution  Inspectorate and the Care Quality Commission

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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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