Helping people with intellectual disabilities navigate the justice system

In the wake of popular true crime documentaries shining a light on the plight of intellectually disabled children and adults in the US, many people are also becoming interested in how people with intellectual disabilities are treated in the Australian justice system. Unfortunately, people with intellectual disabilities are also over-represented in the Australian justice system, with up to 44% of prisoners having IQs below 70 (which classifies as intellectually disabled), and an even higher proportion with borderline IQs between 70-80.

Here are some of the reasons why people with intellectual disabilities may be over-represented in jails.

Impaired ability to know right from wrong

While some crimes are easier to understand than others, people with intellectual disabilities often particularly struggle with property crimes and understanding the processes to take possession of items. They may also struggle to comprehend complex or altered situations which have changed from their last experience, and this can lead to issues with maintaining parole conditions and other technical crimes which can lead to imprisonment.

Desire to please and conform

People with intellectual disabilities are often eager to please others, particularly people in positions of authority. This can lead to them agreeing with police officers and potentially lead to incriminating statements.

Equally, this can mean that people are more inclined to get induced in criminal behaviour to impress people in positions of authority in gangs and criminal organisations. This can lead to people getting involved in criminal behaviour as a 'favour' and can create more opportunities for them to be manipulated. 

Ineffective legal help

People with intellectual disabilities may struggle to access support early enough in their process. They are classified as 'vulnerable people' in police processes and as such should be treated with more support and sensitivity, but they may not know to ask for this support (including having a support person present during questioning to clarify any questions that aren't understood). In some cases people with intellectual disabilities can appear to have a higher cognitive ability than they possess so the police may not volunteer to find them a support person, nor may the suspect know to ask for this help. Carers of people with intellectual disabilities should ensure that they know not to speak to police without a support person present and know to specifically ask for this help.

It is important for people with intellectual disabilities to receive immediate support if they are being questioned and/or charged on a criminal matter. An experienced criminal law attorney can help them to receive the best and fairest possible outcomes.