Learning disabilities increase risk of children breaking the law, research shows

Developmental disabilities, poor mental health, and experiences of trauma and adversity in childhood can greatly increase the risk that a young person will be exposed to the criminal justice system, according to new research.

In a paper published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health this week, researchers examined the ways pre-existing poor health and disability drive children into the youth justice system, finding that this risk is further amplified by societal factors, including inequality and disadvantage. Such drivers include learning disability, traumatic brain injury, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a concurrent paper published in The Lancet Public Health, the researchers from the University of Sheffield, University of Melbourne and Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) conducted the first-ever global review examining the health of detained adolescents from 245 peer-reviewed journal articles and review publications.

The review found that detained adolescents have a significantly higher prevalence of mental health disorders and suicidal behaviours than their peers in the community, along with substance-use disorders, learning disabilities and sexually transmitted infections. For example:

  • Between 11 and 48 per cent of detained young people were found to have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, compared with just five per cent of the general population.
  • 17 per cent of detained young men and 39 per cent of detained young women had attempted suicide, compared with four per cent of the general population.
  • Learning disabilities were found to affect between 10 and 32 per cent of young people in the criminal justice system, compared with between two and four per cent of the general population.

The researchers have called for children who come into conflict with the law to be screened for developmental disabilities at the earliest opportunity, and professionals working within the justice system to be supported to identify the indicators of prominent disabilities and to understand the implications for behaviour and engagement, even if a diagnosis is not possible.

They also recommend judges take account of developmental disabilities when sentencing young offenders, and use detention in these cases only as a last resort. The experts’ comments come after the United Nations issued a general comment last September in relation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, recommending that children with developmental disabilities ‘should not be in the child justice system at all’ last September.

Learning disabilities increase risk of children breaking the law, research shows
Nathan Hughes

Nathan Hughes, Professor of Adolescent Health and Justice at the University of Sheffield, said:

“Research shows that it is our most disadvantaged and unwell young people who end up in the youth justice system.

“Their health and welfare needs are complex, and many detained adolescents have multiple, co-occurring health issues that are compounded by communication difficulties, risky substance use and trauma.”

Professor Stuart Kinner, Head of the Justice Health Unit at the University of Melbourne and MCRI, said:

“Investment in coordinated health, education, family, and welfare services for our most disadvantaged young people must be a priority, both to keep them out of the youth justice system, and to ensure that their health and social needs are met if they do end up in detention.

“We need to recognise that these vulnerable young people typically spend only a short time in detention, before returning to the disadvantaged communities from which they have come.

“If we can screen for health and developmental difficulties while adolescents are in the justice system, we can identify unmet needs – often for the first time – and tailor evidence-based support to improve health outcomes and reduce reoffending once they return to the community. However, to make these improvements a reality we need greater investment in transitional programs and public health services.”