Predictable & Preventable: Aboriginal People with Cognitive Disabilities in the Criminal Justice System

Nov 15
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Below is a case study taken from ‘A predictable and preventable path: Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities in the criminal justice system’ – a new report by Eileen Baldry, Ruth McCausland, Leanne Dowse and Elizabeth McEntyre from UNSW.

Michael is an Indigenous man in his mid-20s. He was diagnosed as a child as having an intellectual disability with a total IQ of 54 (verbal IQ of 52 and non-verbal IQ of 65). He has a long history of substance abuse. Police records note that he began abusing substances at the age of five and throughout his life he is noted as using alcohol, cannabis, amphetamines, heroin, cocaine, petrol and glue. Michael’s childhood was characterised by instability and due to domestic violence in the home he was a state ward from the age of five, living in a number of different OOHC placements. Michael is unable to read or write. He was placed in a special class at school until suspended for criminal behaviour in year five.

At the age of 11, Michael was the victim of a sexual assault by a neighbour of extended family members with whom Michael was living. After the sexual assault Michael was taken into care though he immediately absconded, and police then discovered him in a semi-conscious state in a park. Due to concerns for his welfare and because he was in breach of current bail conditions he was taken first to the police station then subsequently to the hospital as police believed he had inhaled aerosol. Michael absconded from hospital and was subsequently arrested by police and placed in the care of Community Services before running away again.

Police contact in Michael’s youth primarily relates to petty theft offences and bail breaches, escalating to motor vehicle theft and break and enters. He frequently absconded from his carers or foster parents and during these periods he repeatedly offended. Upon being apprehended by police, he generally admitted his guilt freely, rarely lying in order to attempt to extricate himself from a situation. Whilst in police custody, police record a number of instances of self-harm. He also had numerous escape attempts, and frequently assaulted police whilst in custody. Michael had 163 episodes of police custody as a young person, and 25 juvenile justice custody episodes.

Michael’s contact with the criminal justice system began early in his life in a context of great vulnerability and violence, and increased in association with his drug use and an escalation in the seriousness of the offences for which he was arrested. He experienced little positive intervention by child protection or disability services.

Social need and disadvantage

“These case studies provide individual narrative accounts of Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disability who have had histories of contact with the criminal justice system, detailing particular conditions and experiences. They flesh out the events and incidents evident in the qualitative analyses,” the report surmises.

“Together the case studies highlight the breadth and depth of social need and disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disability… Significant disadvantage, vulnerability and risk factors are evident from childhood in all of these case studies, including poverty, the presence of drug and alcohol misuse and violence in the family context, episodes in kinship and OOHC, early school disengagement, and early contact with police both as a victim (often of violence) and as an offender. These do not appear to trigger adequate responses from community-based services or any sustained support.”

Professor Eileen Baldry, one of the authors of the study, will be speaking on ‘People with mental health, cognitive disability & complex support needs: breaking the prison cycle’ at next month’s Improving Reintegration from Prison into the Community Conference. Book by November 13th to save $100 on ticket prices.

Reintegration from Prison into the Community

Submitted by Professor Eileen Baldry

Professor Eileen Baldry

Eileen Baldry (BA, DipEd, MWP, PhD) is the Interim Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Professor of Criminology at UNSW Australia where she has been an academic since 1993. She served as Associate Dean Education, Arts and Social Sciences, from 2007 to mid-2010 and Deputy Dean, Arts and Social Sciences, from mid-2010 to mid-2015.
Eileen is an esteemed researcher in the areas of Criminology, Social Policy and Social Work. She holds an outstanding record over the past twenty years as a Chief Investigator on major grants from the ARC, NHMRC and other funding bodies. She is involved in a voluntary capacity with a number of development and justice community agencies and served two terms as President of the NSW Council of Social Services.

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