Neurodisability and Criminal Justice Research Group


Welcome to the Neurodisability and Criminal Justice Research Group. We are a group of academics who are interested in all aspects of Neurodisability and the Criminal Justice system. You can see our individual bios in the ‘about us’ page. We work to reduce the criminalisation of people with Neurodisabilities, and to improve life outcomes for people who are already in contact with the criminal justice system. We also look to improve outcomes for emergency workers and frontline staff who have neurodisabilities. We have multiple ongoing projects, so please see the ‘our research’ tab for more details.

Our collaborations are important to us, and more details of the organisations and groups we are working with can be found in the ‘our networks’ tab.

What is Neurodisability?

Neurodisability is an umbrella term for a collection of congenital and acquired neurodevelopmental conditions impacting the brain and nervous system. A complex mix of factors lead to neurodisability, and frequently manifest in childhood, during key developmental stages. Although heterogeneous and varied in presentation, these disabilities are characterised by a combination of functional difficulties, typically relating to:

Conditions may vary over time, occur alone or in combination, and include a very broad range of severity and complexity.

The term neurodisability includes, but is not restricted to, diagnoses of specific ‚Äėneurodevelopmental disorders‚Äô, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Conditions, Acquired Brain Injuries, Epilepsy, Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Developmental Co-ordination Disorder, Developmental Language Disorder, and Dyslexia.

By employing the term ‚Äėdisability‚Äô, we elicit the social model: recognising societal norms, practices and discrimination as the root cause of the negative experiences of those experiencing neurodevelopmental difficulties, including those that increase risk of criminalisation. The terms ‚Äėneurodiversity‚Äô and ‘neurodivergence’ are increasingly being used to emphasise the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits as part of normal variation in the human population. These terms celebrate difference, and we recognise the increasing use of them among those with lived experience. We fully support the use of these terms and believe them to be empowering, but here choose the term neurodisability here to reflect the disabling experiences of discrimination they face specifically in criminal justice settings.

In 2019, the United Nations General Comment no. 24 on the rights of children deprived of liberty recognised the impact of neurodisabilities on children in the criminal justice system, and we are hopeful that this represented the start of a paradigm shift away from punitive treatment and towards a rehabilitative system. However, there is a great deal of work still to be done.

For a full review of neurodisability in the criminal justice system, we recommend reading this report, called ‘Nobody Made the Connection: The prevalence of neurodisability in young people who offend’, published by the children’s commissioner.

What is Acquired Brain Injury?

Acquired brain injury (ABI) is a leading cause of death and disability worldwide, and refers to any brain injury acquired after birth. These could be traumatic injuries, for example from motor vehicle accidents, sporting injuries, assaults, fights, or falls. They also include hypoxic injuries, e.g. through strangulation. ABIs can also be the result of infections (like meningitis), or illness (like strokes or tumours).

In the general population, between 8% and 12% of people are estimated to have a mild ABI, with 4% having experienced a more moderate brain injury.

However, our research estimates that between 60% and 70% of people in prison have experienced an ABI that would be considered mild, whilst 30% – 40% have experienced a more moderate ABI that would likely lead to ongoing symptoms.

Brain Injury has been described as a ‘silent epidemic’ in the criminal justice system, as so many people are living with unrecognised brain injuries. Research has illustrated a clear link between brain injuries and criminalisation, as well as cyclical reoffending. Women in the criminal justice system are at particular risk of having sustained multiple brain injuries through domestic or intimate-partner violence. Other very vulnerable populations include the homeless, and military veterans.

Navigating the criminal justice system with an ABI is extremely difficult, as there are multiple procedures to follow and non-compliance can result in harsher sanctions or even longer sentances. For example, people with an ABI may find it difficult to actively engage in court procedings, or to remember probation appointments which must be attended.

For a full review of ABI and the criminal justice system, we recommend reading this report called ‘Repairing shattered lives’ commissioned by the Barrow Cadbury Trust as part of the Transition to Adulthood Alliance. We also recommend this more recent report produced by HMPPS Academic Insights.