- Published: October 24, 2012
A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner for England (established by the British Parliament in 2004 to promote awareness of views and interests of all the children in England) examined a review by the University of Exeter and the University of Birmingham that looked at the prevalence of various neurodevelopmental disorders among young offenders in the youth justice system of England . These disorders included learning disabilities, dyslexia, communication disorders, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, autism, traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, and fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). The review found that the reported prevalence rates among young people in custody was up to 10-15 times as much as young people in the general population for these disorders with the exception of epilepsy. For example, the prevalence rate for communication disorder is 5-7% in the general population, while among those in custody it is 60-90%. For fetal alcohol syndrome, the comparison is between 0.1-5% in the general population to almost among those in custody . It is not uncommon for two or three of these disorders to occur together (co-morbidity): this is especially the case with autism. In addition, the authors of the review consulted with young people and staff at a young offender institution. Some of these staff members noted that those offenders with neurodevelopmental disabilities are most likely to be influenced negatively by certain peers and gang culture because they just want to ‘fit in’, ultimately leading to offending behavior.
The authors note that other factors such as parenting style and family background are important influences on behavior. However, what is apparent is that there are failures in the current legal system of the United Kingdom (many of which can likely be found in the United States) in identifying those young people who have these neurodisabilities and providing support before and after arrest. This failure is attributed to a lack of knowledge, training, tools, and resources. The adolescents that the authors interviewed also acknowledged the lack of support from schools, though sometimes the children themselves are uncooperative. Another aspect of the criminalization of young offenders with neurodisabilities is that the rehabilitation of these offenders is not well understood. Like the authors of the report, I believe that is important for our legal system, public health system and society at large that we identify neurodisabilities in our youth so that we can not only prevent youth crime but also so that we can reduce recividism once these same youth offenders grow older. We know that the prefrontal cortex (PFC), involved in considering the long-term consquences of decisions among many other functions, is not fully developed in most people until after the age of 20. That’s why we cannot hold children to the same legal standard as adults. It shouldn’t be too difficult, then, to reform our youth legal system such that we are able to research effective ways to rehabilitate youth offenders that exhibit neurodisabilities and implement these methods. The authors of the review point out several factors that contribute to desistance (abstinence) from future offending among young offenders, including confidence over aspects of one’s life, the replacement of criminality by ‘new social roles and responsibilities’ and the understanding of concepts such as personal responsibility and altruism . While neurodisabilities negatively impact many of these factors, the goals of our rehabilitation scheme nonetheless should be to promote the maturation of the youth offender in a way that maximizes these factors. The goal here should not be retributive but rather rehabilitative with the aim of molding an adult that is a functional member of society.
 Mulvey, E. P., L. Steinberg, et al. (2004). "Theory and Research on Desistance from Antisocial Activity among Serious Adolescent Offenders." Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 2(3): 213-236.