Supporting offenders with communication needs
21 October 2022
Read a blog from Tony Bowman of the SOLD Network to learn about why some people with communication and understanding difficulties come into conflict with the law and what can be done to break a cycle of reoffending.
Being accused of a crime can be a challenging time for everyone, but it can be especially challenging for those who have difficulty in communicating and understanding.
That is where organisations like SOLD can assist. We are a national network committed to improving support for people with communication difficulties who have become involved in the justice system, whether they are at risk of, accused of, or convicted of a crime.
On 26 April 2022, we hosted a conference in Edinburgh entitled: “I wish I could be back in prison”: community-based support for offenders with communication support needs. The event highlighted the challenges faced by people with communication support needs (CSN) after release from prison or at the conclusion of a community sentence. This blog is intended to explain the issues behind that provocative conference title. I will look at some of the reasons people with CSN come into conflict with the law, and why the provision of social care support has such an essential role to play in helping them to break the cycle of re-offending.
What do we mean by communication support needs (CSN)?
This is a phrase that may seem unfamiliar, but it is one we have chosen to use in recent years. SOLD started out as an acronym: Supporting Offenders with Learning Disabilities. When the Scottish Government asked us to incorporate autism into our remit, it may have ruined our acronym, but far more interestingly, we discovered from talking to people with autism that the challenges that they faced in relation to criminal justice are very similar to those of people with learning disabilities. We then found that the same was largely true across all the different cognitive and neurological impairment groups, including:
- acquired brain injury
- foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
It made sense to adopt the phrase ‘communication support needs’ to make our work as inclusive as possible.
Why do people with CSN come into conflict with the law?
It is important to understand the motivations and circumstances that can lead people with CSN into conflict with the law. These can, and do, differ from those of the more general offending population. It is also critical that any sentence imposed, and any support provided, takes account of the particular circumstances and motivations that lead the person to commit the offence.
This list is not exhaustive, but here is a selection.
For some people, desperation for friendship will lead them to become involved with peer groups who exploit their vulnerability and lead them into offending behaviour. In these situations, a person with CSN is rarely the main instigator of an offence, but often the one who gets the blame.
For others, it is a lack of knowledge, understanding and familiarity with the boundaries, social norms, rules and conventions that lead them to offend inadvertently. As members of the general population, we acquire these skills and understandings as part of the natural process of growing up. But many people with CSN have not had those same learning opportunities. This leads to a deficit of social learning, and puts them at increased risk of offending. In these situations, the offence is often not committed with any malicious intent. As one member of the SOLD user group put it, “you don’t always realise what you’re doing is wrong”. Without support, vulnerable people trying to meet their basic human needs will inevitably make unhealthy choices from time to time.
Some people with CSN, because they look different, or act differently, become the target for abuse and harassment in their community. Driven to breaking point, people have found themselves charged with an offence due to the way they have responded, sometimes lashing out at their tormentors.
Sometimes, and this can be particularly true for people with autism, the way people respond to stress or anxiety, can lead to them being criminalised. Another member of the SOLD user group said that in the past, he has lashed out in frustration, but not because he wanted to hurt anyone.
We need to emphasise that none of this is intended to excuse offending behaviour, or to minimise the impact on victims, for whom the experience is equally traumatic whatever the motivation. But it is important to understand the reasons people with CSN sometimes come into conflict with the law in order to be better informed about the most effective ways of preventing those offences.
Why is community-based support so important for rehabilitation?
People with CSN can be significantly disadvantaged in terms of successfully rehabilitating. Without support, they are at risk of becoming trapped in a cycle of re-offending that can be difficult to break. One member of the SOLD user group has said that he felt he got a lot of support whilst he was on a community payback order (CPO), which he found helpful. But as soon as the order ended, he was left to cope alone. He said life was harder after the order than on it, which is not the way it should be.
Another member of the SOLD user group eventually received a support package after several spells in prison. This changed his life, and he never went back to prison.
The Good Lives Model
The Good Lives Model identifies key social factors, such as employment or a stable relationship, that help reduce the risk of re-offending. Many people with CSN do not have these things in their lives, and without support, they have little to no realistic prospect of that changing. For instance, only 4% of people with a learning disability are in employment compared with 76% of the general population. Only 3% are in a relationship compared with 75%. These are key protective factors to reduce reoffending, and yet the levels of exclusion for people with CSN are colossal. Many people with CSN will never have equal access to these protective factors without the provision of practical and, ideally, proactive effective support.
Similarly, the right support is essential to help people address those deficits in social learning. As a member of the SOLD user group stated, “people need support to understand why their behaviour is wrong, and to learn ways to change”.
In more extreme, tragic instances, people can develop a dependency on the prison regime, and find it easier to cope with than the chaos of their lives in the community. For instance, “I find life really hard on the outside, really hard. I don’t even eat meals, I don’t have a routine for eating ‘cause there’s nobody opening my door and saying, ‘go and get your lunch.’ I crave that because I’ve had it from a young age...” (Gormley, 2019).We should at least ensure people receive the support they need to achieve a quality of life that is better than being in prison. This should not be setting the bar too high.
And it is not just SOLD saying this. Our position was reinforced by the findings of the Independent Review of Learning Disability and Autism in the Mental Health Act, which recommended a duty be placed on health and social care partnerships to support people living in the community. The review recognised that peoples’ hopes of living successfully in the community are significantly disadvantaged without support.
At what point on the justice pathway should support be provided?
In this blog, we are discussing the importance of community-based support for successfully rehabilitating after the end of a sentence. However, it is perhaps worth highlighting that the important point is that a person getting the support they need will always make a difference, whenever it comes. SOLD have been arguing for support packages to be part of a person’s sentence, as an additional requirement of a CPO.
There is logic to this. The first is early intervention. Why wait until the end of a person’s order, or their liberation from prison, to begin practical rehabilitation? We can begin that process of rehabilitation immediately from the moment they have been sentenced. The second is that if a person comes into conflict with the law because they lack the support they need, then including the support they need within their sentence, will help to prevent them from re-offending.
There is another practical consideration to take into account. The Scottish Government review of CPOs found that engagement was considerably increased where there was an element of compulsion. This sounds draconian, and contrary to my instincts as a social worker, but if it works, it works. It is important that we always strive to maintain an evidence-based approach. The same review also concluded that CPOs that were designed in a person-centred way to meet each person’s needs were much more likely to result in a successful outcome.
A support package could also play an effective role as part of a programme for diversion from prosecution.
What is the economic case for investing in community-based support?
In order to provide the type of support we are describing, funding will be required, which is an inhibitory factor. However, we would argue that this model will deliver savings in public expenditure, both short and long term, and be a cost-effective approach to community justice.
For instance, longer term savings can be achieved by supporting people to avoid re-offending. Each new offence and each new involvement with the justice system incurs considerable expense. We believe that, for people with CSN, many of these offences can be prevented by providing good quality, community-based rehabilitative support.
In the short term, the opportunities for savings are immediate. The new provisions for bail supervision proposed in the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill will, if enacted, make a difference, but priority is given to those whose bail application has been opposed by the prosecution, frequently for public protection. But there is another cohort of remand prisoner whose bail application is not opposed because they are not a danger to anyone: they are at high risk of breaching their order (and the same applies to CPOs) because their CSN means they have difficulty understanding the conditions with which they are required to comply.
By providing support, we can prevent many of these unnecessary breaches, and in so doing, make considerable savings in public expenditure.
Anderson, S., Hinchcliffe, S., Homes, A., McConville, S., Wild, A., Hutton, N. and Noble, S. (2015) Evaluation of Community Payback Orders, Criminal Justice Social Work Reports and the Presumption Against Short Sentences, Scottish Government. Edinburgh
Gormley, C. (2019) The Prison Experiences of People with Learning Disabilities, Howard League for Penal Reform Early Career Academics Network Bulletin, 41, pp. 32-38
Prescott, D.S. The Good Lives Model in Theory and Practice
Rome, A. (2019) Independent Review of Learning Disability and Autism in the Mental Health Act
Sapouna, M., Bisset, C., Conlong, A. & Matthews, B. (2015) What Works to Reduce Reoffending: a summary of the evidence, Scottish Government, Edinburgh
Scottish Commission for Learning Disability (2019) Learning Disability Statistics Scotland 2019. Glasgow