High numbers of children in prison have undiagnosed neurodevelopmental conditions, including brain trauma, according to research from the children’s commissioner.
Researchers found that sending children and young people with such conditions to prison is likely to increase their offending behaviour, rather than reduce it.
Published today, the study calls for better training for social workers, GPs, teachers and nurses to help them identify neuro-disabilities in children at risk of offending.
The review of research, conducted by the Universities of Birmingham and Exeter, also found that up to three in four young people who commit crimes are suffering the effects of a traumatic brain injury, such as a direct blow to the head or penetration of the skull. This is compared to fewer than one in four of the general population.
It recommended an overhaul of the youth justice system and sentencing guidelines to ensure sufferers of brain trauma, ADHD, autism, learning and communication difficulties and epilepsy are diverted away from prison.
Serious questions for youth justice system
Children’s commissioner Maggie Atkinson said the research raises serious questions about whether significant numbers of children in the youth justice system are able to understand the process from arrest through to sentencing.
“Although children who have neurodevelopmental disorders or brain injuries may know the difference between right and wrong, they may not understand the consequences of their actions, the processes they then go through in courts or custody, nor have the means of addressing their behaviour to avoid reoffending.”
The report calls on the government to commit to the ongoing development of the Comprehensive Health Assessment Tool, to help early diagnosis, and develop an IT system across youth justice services to allow information to be collected and shared.
It also recommended greater use of multi-systemic therapy, which was shown to be a cost-effective alternative to custody for such young offenders.
The study compared the prevalence of certain disorders between young offenders and the general population. It found up to 90% of young offenders have communication disorders, compared to just 1-7% of the general population, while 65-76% of young offenders have a traumatic brain injury, compared with 5-24% of their peers.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the report “shines an important light on a hidden factor in many young people’s offending”.
“Locking up vulnerable children and young people is the surest way to increase the adult prison population of the future. Before getting into trouble, most young people will have had childhoods marked by abuse and neglect,” she said.
Social work guide to youth justice: prevention programmes and interventions