Neurologically disabled overrepresented in prison


A Wellington forum has been told if we're going to address serious youth offending in New Zealand we need to pay more attention to the "invisible presence" in our courts.

They're talking about neurological disabilities like dyslexia, Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, intellectual disability and ADHD.

It's estimated 90 percent of our inmates do not read well and 80 percent aren't good with numbers.

Teina Pora spent more than 20 years behind bars after being wrongly convicted of rape and murder. It was later discovered he had Foetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Research suggests that people with neurodisabilities are highly overrepresented in prisons.

"Up until now it's been largely invisible, underdiagnosed, not known about, and to our shame, probably not dealt with at all well, if at all," says Judge Andrew Becroft.

The concern is that they have, on occasions, criminalised a health issue.

"The numbers speaks for themselves," says Guy Pope-Mayell of the Dyslexia Foundation.

"There's absolutely no doubt at all that a good percentage of those people that are in the justice system now, that have a neurodisability, should not be in there."

A UK study found people in custody were way more likely to have neuro-disorders.  While 2-4 percent of the general population has a learning disability, in prison it's up to 32 percent.

Dyslexia jumps from 10 percent to as high as 57 percent in prison, and Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is around 5 percent in public but up to 11.7 percent amongst inmates.

And problems can also arise from head injuries.

"So 50 percent of all inmates are currently Maori, we know that 91 percent of those have had major head trauma over their lifetime," says Lance Norman, chief executive of the National Urban Maori Authority.

Waiting until they're already in the justice system may be too late.

"What's needed is more preventative programmes and earlier on in people's life," Mr Norman says.

One proposal is to extend the Youth Court's reach by increasing the age limit.

There's no suggestion there'd be lighter sentences for those with neurodisabilities, but better diagnoses and more tailored treatment.