Offenders with learning disabilities failed by criminal justice agencies

Police, prosecutors, courts and probation not identifying people with learning disabilities or providing support to meet their needs, find inspectors

Police cell
Picture posed by model (Credit: Photofusion/Rex)

People with learning disabilities who commit offences are being failed by criminal justice agencies, who are not identifying them or meeting their specific needs.

That was the message from a joint report today by the Care Quality Commission and the probation, police and Crown Prosecution Service inspectorates, based on inspections in six areas into the treatment of offenders from arrest to sentence.

This represents a lack of progress since the 2009 Bradley Report, commissioned by the last government, demanded improvements in the treatment of offenders with mental health problems or learning disabilities.

Inspectors found a lack of a clear definition of a learning disability across criminal justice agencies, meaning there was no way of knowing how many learning disabled offenders there were, resulting in a lack of services to meet their specific needs.

Police processes to identify people with learning disabilities in custody were inadequate, and based largely on a risk assessments that did not specifically examine learning disabilities, information on police databases and custody officers’ judgement.

None of the forces visited provided specialist training to custody officers in identifying or dealing with detainees with learning disabilities. This was illustrated by the fact that, of 36 cases identified by probation inspectors as involving offenders with learning disabilities, 15 had been identified as such by the police.

Lack of appropriate adults

Though police forces are under an obligation to provide people who are “mentally vulnerable” with an appropriate adult to support them in custody, this was often not provided, even when people were identified as having a learning disability.

In just 63% of cases where a person was identified as having a learning disability were they provided with an appropriate adult, a finding described by inspectors as “disappointing”.

But they also found that the supply and quality of appropriate adults services was inadequate, with just two of the six police forces saying they had appropriate adults services available day and night. Unlike for young offenders, where youth offending teams are under a statutory obligation to provide appropriate adults services, no agency has such an obligation for vulnerable adults.

Though councils sometimes provided the appropriate adults service, custody staff reported a perception among local authority adults’ services that an offender in custody was safe from harm and therefore not their highest priority.

Also, just one of the six police forces had a scheme to divert offenders with learning disabilities away from custody into health services.

In two-thirds of cases passed from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service, the CPS lawyer did not receive information about the person’s learning disability, despite this being a factor that should inform their decision to charge.

Court staff did not receive training in identifying or dealing with people with learning disabilities, and there was a lack of easy read leaflets in court waiting areas to help defendants understand the process.

‘Confusing and frightening’

“For anyone entering a criminal court for the first time, the environment and process is confusing and possibly frightening and this is especially so for someone with a learning disability,” said the report. “The availability of ‘easy read’ posters and leaflets is the very least that should be available to help someone feel less intimidated.”

In five of the six areas, there was a court-based liaison and diversion scheme to provide health-related support to vulnerable defendants. However, most such schemes are targeted at people with mental health needs and staff felt they had limited skills in working with adults with learning disabilities.

Pre-sentence reports by probation services were also inadequate. A significant minority were produced on the day of the court hearing, leaving probation staff little time to identify their needs. Reports also took into account relevant learning disability issues in only 40% of cases, as report writers lacked knowledge and awareness of learning disability. In particular, they often failed to draw a link between the person’s learning disability and the risks of harm they posed to others.

The report made the following recommendations:

  • all criminal justice agencies should adopt a joint definition of a learning disability;
  • police forces should use effective screening tools to identify people with learning disabilities in custody and ensure custody staff are sufficiently aware of the range of learning disabilities;
  • the Department of Health and NHS England should ensure custody suites have access to specialist learning disability staff to help signpost offenders to appropriate services;
  • the Ministry of Justice should implement section 104 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to provide vulnerable defendants with registered intermediaries to help them through the courts process.

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