Neurodiversity in criminal justice system - more effective support needed, say inspectorates

Read the report: Neurodiversity in the criminal justice system: A review of evidence (PDF, 883 kB)

The government has been urged to develop more coordinated and effective support for people with neurodivergent conditions – including autism, traumatic brain injury and learning difficulties and disabilities – in the criminal justice system (CJS).

A report (first attached) by three criminal justice inspectorates says better assessment, treatment and support could “help break the cycle affecting too many: of crime, arrest, court, prison, probation and reoffending.”

Their report identified patchy data collection and inconsistent assessments and staff training and knowledge. The scale of the problem, and the extent to which neurodivergent people may be over-represented in the system, are difficult to assess but, the report notes, perhaps half of those entering prison could reasonably be expected to have some form of neurodivergent condition which impacts their ability to engage.

The Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, commissioned a review of neurodiversity by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons), which led the project, and HM Inspectorate of Probation (HMIP), with support from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS). The aim was to understand what is currently known and being done and to make recommendations for further action from the government.

In a joint forward to the report, Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Justin Russell, HM Chief Inspector of Probation and Sir Thomas Winsor, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, said the review “found evidence of good local partnerships and heard about many simple adjustments that could easily be made to support neurodivergent people in the criminal justice system.”

However, they added, “it is clear that such provision is patchy, inconsistent and uncoordinated, and that too little is being done to understand and meet the needs of individuals. This report concludes that with more effective assessment of need, adaptation of services and better training of staff it is possible to support those with neurodivergent conditions.”

The report makes recommendations, including an overarching one about coordination by government ministries, to “set a course” for ministers on what needs to be done. The Chief Inspectors added: “It will take time and commitment to make the changes that we suggest, but we believe that it is possible to transform the experiences and outcomes for those with neurodivergent needs.”

The report identified difficulties for those with neurodivergent conditions at every stage in the criminal justice process from arrest to release from prison. There were failures to transfer or share relevant information at every stage in the system.

The report recommended better neurodiversity screening of those in the CJS because “currently there are different approaches to screening – some more effective than others – and substantial gaps.” Consistent screening would improve global understanding of the scale of the problem and identify needs at a local level.

A survey of police, prison and probation staff revealed consistently low levels of awareness, understanding and confidence in relation to neurodiversity. The report noted: “While there is no expectation that frontline staff should become ‘experts’ in neurodiversity, they do need (and want) a greater understanding of the range of conditions and how they may present.” Alongside the need for more formal support and training, the report added, “people involved in the CJS made a powerful plea for criminal justice staff to simply make full use of their ‘soft skills’ – listening, empathy and compassion. By routinely asking questions, and listening to the answers, many immediate needs could be understood and met.”

The report identified a range of environmental and sensory adjustments to ease distress for people with neurodivergent conditions and support them to engage. These ranged from dimmed lights, eye masks and earplugs to quiet and uncluttered areas of custody and the provision of distraction packs and stress balls. Simplifying criminal justice written jargon was identified as an important factor, reflecting the general need to use language and communications to ensure people understand what is happening to them in the criminal justice process.

The authors of the report were struck by the number of times the word ‘difficult’ was used in evidence, most commonly in relation to perceptions of the behaviour of neurodivergent people. “It would perhaps be more useful to reflect on how ‘difficult’ the CJS is for people with neurodivergent needs, and what could be done to change this.”

Charlie Taylor said: “This report shows how much work needs to be done to improve the treatment and support for those with neurodivergent conditions who come into the criminal justice system. It challenges the government to improve the assessment of the needs of those coming into custody, consider how provision can be improved and make sure that staff members are sufficiently trained.”

Sir Thomas Winsor said: “The police are the first point of contact with the criminal justice system for people with neurodiverse conditions. This review found some examples of positive, practical and sensitive responses from police, recognising that people have different needs and making sensible adjustments as a result. But as this report shows, this good practice needs to be consistent – both within policing, and across the criminal justice system as a whole.”

Justin Russell said: “When individuals turn up at probation offices, they have already been through the criminal justice system. Their prior experiences will shape how they engage with probation practitioners and whether or not they are motivated to turn away from further offending. It is vital that people with neurodivergent conditions are identified early, so all criminal justice agencies – including probation services – can provide the right support. Probation practitioners need training too, so they can engage individuals fully in their supervision.”

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Notes to editors

  1. Read the report: Neurodiversity in the criminal justice system: A review of evidence (PDF, 883 kB).
  2. The three criminal justice inspectorates involved in the review are: HM Inspectorate of Prisons; HM Inspectorate of Probation; and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services.
  3. Read the report by User Voice, commissioned as part of the overall project, which explores the lived experience of people with neurodiverse conditions in the criminal justice system.
  4. Read the report by KeyRing (PDF, 144 kB), which captures the voices of seven people of various ages and with a variety of experiences in the criminal justice system.
  5. HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor is the nominated spokesperson for this report and is available for media interviews. For media enquiries please contact John Steele at HMI Prisons on or 07780 787452.