(RE)think piece

Can ‘neuroinclusivity’ cut crime? Rethinking the link between neurodiversity and the criminal justice system

Can ‘neuroinclusivity’ cut crime? Rethinking the link between neurodiversity and the criminal justice system

Zahra Wynne

Why do neurodivergent people face disproportionate representation and outcomes across the criminal justice system? And, more importantly, what can be done to address this issue? In this piece, Zahra Wynne, Policy Manager at Revolving Doors, delves into the significance of recognising and addressing neurodiverse needs within the criminal justice system. Drawing on insights from our Neurodiversity Forum, she explores the challenges faced by those navigating the criminal justice system with a neurodiverse condition and unveils potential solutions to ensure better prevention and inclusivity, as well as desistance.

From this work, I know that the highly misunderstood nature of neurodiversity is what can drive people to get caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place.

It is no secret that neurodivergent people are disproportionately represented within the criminal justice system. It is estimated that half of people entering prison have some form of neurodiverse condition. “Neurodiversity” is the umbrella term for a range of conditions, which vary hugely, including (but not limited to) dyslexia, autism, ADHD, acquired brain injury and dyspraxia. It is, therefore, a complex topic to engage with – no two neurodivergent people will be the same or have the same experiences.

I am by no means an expert in neurodiversity – I am not a researcher, a psychologist, or a doctor.  However, I have been running the Revolving Doors’ Neurodiversity Forum, which brings together people with lived experience of the criminal justice system and who have neurodivergent conditions. From this work, I know that the highly misunderstood nature of neurodiversity is what can drive people to get caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place.

It’s essential to remember that people do not get caught up in the criminal justice system only because they are neurodivergent. Rather, it is often because systems and services have failed to recognise neurodiversity and therefore tailor their approaches. This effectively denies people who are neurodivergent essential support to thrive, from when they are in school up until when they enter the criminal justice system.

A sensory overload can be interpreted as aggression or public disorder, resulting in arrest. Behaviours in court can be interpreted as aloof or unremorseful, with our lived experience members feeling like may have contributed to a guilty verdict or harsher sentence. Written licence conditions aren’t understood, resulting in breach. The lights and noise of the prison environment can cause distress, interpreted as non-compliance with the regime. Drug, alcohol and mental health services often do not tailor their support to meet the needs of neurodivergent people, resulting in relapses or a lack of engagement.

“My behaviours have been misunderstood. My last stint, my barrister told me that the jury thought I was guilty because I didn’t come across “properly”, and, because I didn’t show emotions, they thought I was guilty. When actually, it’s just my Aspergers, and I don’t have conventional responses to things.”

Lived experience member

“When I was committing acquisitive crimes, usually by the time the police was called I’d be ready to get in a fight. A simple theft would become a crime against the person – all because of the way I behaved, because of neurodiversity and trauma.”

Lived experience member

We often talk about the importance of systems and services being trauma-informed and person-centred, and neurodiversity is now rightly getting the attention it deserves as something that needs to be considered when designing services. Increasingly, we are seeing positive practices being developed in prison and across policing. Some prisons in England and Wales are moving towards ‘autism accreditation’ from the National Autistic Society, which is encouraging. For example, in HMP Parc, to ensure the prison is more centred around the needs of autistic people they have provided a sensory room, offered eye masks and ear plugs, and have allowed people to collect food or medication at the start or end of queues. The Government’s Prisons Strategy White Paper states it will encourage more prisons to undertake the autism accreditation process. Alongside this, there has been the rollout of Neurodiversity Support Managers across prisons – roles that raise awareness of neurodiversity in prison and help strengthen approaches for identifying and supporting those with neurodivergent needs. This includes supporting people in prison access and engage in education, skills and work programmes in the prison.

But don’t we need a preventative approach, that starts far before anyone sees the inside of a prison cell? To achieve this, we need systemic reform that is enacted with people with lived experience.

It’s not enough to just tinker with services when and only when someone is identified as neurodivergent. As our lived experience members tell us, moving towards neuroinclusivity, by ensuring that every system and service is responsive to the needs of neurodivergent people in their design and delivery, improves outcomes for everyone – neurodivergent or not.

“Not understanding all the acronyms, lots of new processes – when you add neurodiversity on top of that, it’s very overwhelming. Your experience often comes down to luck, finding the right person to help you.”

Lived experience member

“A neurodiversity-aware approach links in with a trauma-informed approach.”

Lived experience member

We are seeing some police forces begin to screen people coming in for ADHD, allowing for a quicker diagnosis and access to the support they need. When discussing the pilot, one Detective Chief Inspector  said that it ‘will identify undiagnosed ADHD among detainees, supporting them and ensuring they are processed fairly.’ These initiatives are welcome, but they are small steps in a much bigger movement that is needed to facilitate neuroinclusivity. In order for services and systems to be neuroinclusive, they must be designed from the ground up in partnership with people who have experience of the criminal justice system and who are neurodivergent. Only then, can we truly claim to be neuroinclusive.

Revolving Doors have been trying to contribute to this strategy. Our neurodiversity forum was integral in shaping the Ministry of Justice’s neurodiversity action plan and its delivery. It has also been shaping the RECONNECT: Care after Custody neurodiversity pathway – ensuring that neurodivergent people leaving prison get the support that they need to continue on a path of desistance and reduce the chances of repeat crime due to a lack of support and guidance.

Neuroinclusivity could be a first step in ensuring that people do not get needlessly caught up in the criminal justice system. When neurodivergent people are diverted into support when they come into police contact rather than arrested due to their behaviours, we’ll see less crime. When neurodivergent people have a more positive relationship with their probation officer due to a shared understanding and way of working, we’ll see a reduction in repeat crime. When, in a court setting, the support that a neurodivergent person needs to address the drivers of offending is identified, we’ll see sentences that are rehabilitative rather than purely punitive.

Surely, if the shared goal across Government, the third sector and the general public is to reduce crime, then neuroinclusivity is a step in the right direction?

“You are expected to fit the system. But it can’t work like that, you need to see the individual.”

Lived experience member

For more information about Revolving Doors’ work and position on neurodiversity and criminal justice, check out our policy position.

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