Sixty second interview with forensic psychologist Professor Susan Hayes on offenders with learning difficulties


A visiting professor at Bristol University, Hayes conducts research (in the UK and Australia) and clinical work (in Australia) with offenders with learning difficulties.

Earlier this month the Norah Fry research centre at Bristol  held a national information exchange on the experiences and treatment of offenders with learning difficulties.

What are the main issues for offenders with learning difficulties?
Raising awareness of learning difficulties among professionals working in the criminal justice system including social workers, probation officers, and prison health and education services.

Establishing protocols for assessing for learning difficulties within the criminal justice system, so that offenders do not fall through the gaps between services.

Ensuring that a range of diversionary options are established so that people with learning difficulties can be diverted out of prison if appropriate. However diversion from the criminal justice system into, say, a secure psychiatric facility is not always a good option for people with learning difficulties. Research shows that individuals in such facilities spend longer in the secure unit than they would have spent in prison if they had received a sentence, and they may have to face tougher barriers to be released. 

Ensuring that offenders with learning difficulties access services they need, including health and education.

How many offenders with learning difficulties are there?
I am currently conducting research into this subject, which will be published shortly.

What happened at the information exchange day on offenders with learning difficulties at Bristol University?

Learning difficulty, health and criminal justice professionals met, learnt from each other, and engaged in problem-solving and discussion designed to improve the situation for offenders with learning difficulties. 

There were some examples of best practice presented to the forum, but regrettably there are also many gaps in services highlighted during the seminar including:

People with learning difficulties being located out of county because of a paucity of secure units in their local areas.  This means they lose contact with family, friends and their usual service providers, which can be a very distressing experience.  Their familiar supports are often absent during important assessments. Such placements are a costly option.

There are very few services appropriate for women with learning difficulties who are offenders.

There is an urgent need for training and raised awareness among professionals in the criminal justice system, and clear pathways of referral. There need to be guidelines about information exchange between professionals, so that existing information can be used to assist the person with learning difficulties and the courts.

Many areas lack a cohesive forensic service which can meet the needs not only of offenders with learning difficulties, but also victims of crime with learning difficulties.

There needs to be joint commissioning involving a number of different service areas.

There are significant gaps in our knowledge, with further research required into the needs of young offenders with learning difficulties, the experiences of women offenders with learning difficutlies, and the families of offenders with learning difficulties.

There needs to be a range of community options, so that the choices for sentencing of people with learning difficulty who offend are not limited to prison or hospital.

We need a more joined-up strategic approach – with support and leadership from the Home Office.

People with learning difficulties can face discrimination in the legal system, and this needs to be addressed through disability discrimination legislation.

What sparked your interest in offenders with learning difficulties?
It arose from a broader concern about the rights of people with learning difficulties, and the criminal justice system is a major area where rights are not observed.

In my clinical practice, I am sometimes briefed by defence and prosecution lawyers.  My clients include accused people with learning difficulties and victims of crime with learning difficulties.

I also work with people with learning difficulties involved in child protection matters.

I have developed a screening test for use in the criminal justice system, called the Hayes ability screening index, which is being used world-wide, including in the UK. 

I am hoping to develop some research projects in the UK, in particular in the areas of women offenders with learning difficulties, and families of offenders with learning difficulties.

Previous Sixty Second Interview within the Adults’ sector

Previous Sixty Second Interview within the Children’s sector




More from Community Care

Comments are closed.