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06 December 2010

Blog: This is not justice

Vulnerable people with learning difficulties who commit crime can end up lost in a system they do not understand.

It comes as a shock that our well-regulated criminal justice system is running in breach of disability equality legislation. Yet a new Prison Reform Trust report, No One Knows, reveals that, despite existing checks and balances, vulnerable people routinely face abuse and discrimination throughout the justice system.

Over 170 prisoners with learning disabilities and learning difficulties give harrowing accounts of what it is like to go from police stations to courts to prison in a fog of anxiety and well-founded fear of bullying, not understanding or half-understanding what is happening to you. At worst, the absence of police safeguards increases the likelihood of vulnerable people experiencing miscarriages of justice. Once in court, their lack of understanding grows as their lives are taken over by opaque court procedures and legal terminology. In prison, many are left to fend for themselves in a shadowy, threatening world of not knowing what is going on around them or what is expected of them.

Prisoners’ Voices is the concluding report of the Prison Reform Trust’s No One Knows programme supported by the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. Previous reports, welcomed by ministers, have estimated that 7% of people in prison have an IQ of less than 70 and 20-30% of offenders have learning disabilities or difficulties that interfere with their ability to cope within the criminal justice system.

Although this report finds pockets of good practice, it concludes that those providing leadership in the criminal justice system throughout the UK are failing in their legal duty to eliminate disability discrimination and promote equality.

The report finds that at the police station less than a third of vulnerable people received support from an appropriate adult during police interviews. Half of those with learning disabilities said they didn’t know what would happen to them once they had been charged. Some allege maltreatment by the police or felt they had been manipulated into agreeing to a police interview without support.

One prisoner said: “They say to me, ‘If you want an interview we can do it now or you can wait five hours for a solicitor to come.’ You don’t want to wait that long to be interviewed. They do the same with a caution, you have to plead guilty and then you can go, but you feel pressured to plead guilty.”

One woman prisoner, denied her medication, said: “When I was arrested I said I needed my medication. They left it for three days and even when I went to court I didn’t have my medication. I was shaking and my solicitor was going mad.”

The report finds that in court over a fifth interviewed didn’t understand what was going on. Some didn’t know why they were in court or what they had done wrong, which raises questions about fitness to plead and the risk of miscarriage of justice.

Most said the use of simpler language in court would have helped them. One young offender talking about his experience at court said: “I couldn’t really hear. I couldn’t understand, but I said ‘Yes, whatever’ to anything because if I say, ‘I don’t know’ they look at me as if I’m thick. Sometimes they tell you two things at once.”

The report finds that in prison over half said they had been scared. They were five times as likely as other prisoners to have been subjected to control and restraint techniques and three times more likely to have spent time in segregation. They were generally uncertain about where they would go for help as they prepared to leave prison.

One prisoner told of the difficulties he had keeping in touch with his family: “Nobody told my mum I was going to jail, she thought I was dead. I asked how they were going to tell my mum, but it took three months for anyone to contact her. I finally found someone to help me write a letter.”

The report calls for an end to the criminal justice system’s collective and unlawful failure to meet the minimum requirements of disability legislation. Its main recommendations are:

  • Criminal justice agencies should comply with the Disability Discrimination Act (2005) and specifically the disability equality duty.
  • Individual prisons and courts should be brought into line with other public authorities and be required to produce their own disability equality schemes.
  • All criminal justice information, letters and forms should be in “easy read”; all interventions should be accessible to offenders with learning disabilities or difficulties, or alternatives of the same quality provided.
  • Health, social services, criminal justice and other relevant services should come together to establish local multi-agency forums, to develop local strategies for preventing offending and re-offending of people with learning disabilities or difficulties.
  • Vulnerable people should be identified at the point of arrest so they can be supported and, where appropriate, the option to divert away from the criminal justice system considered.

Questions remain. How did such vulnerable people get caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place? Could those responsible for special education, social care and family support have done more to prevent this happening?

Juliet Lyon

This article originally appeared in Comment is Free: