Can brain injuries cause youngsters to commit crime?

4 November 2013

The study says that injuries of this nature can lead maturing brains to ‘misfire’ affecting judgement and the ability to control impulses.  The findings are very similar to a report by the Children’s Commissioner for England and calls for greater monitoring and treatment to prevent problems in later life.

The report entitled ‘Repairing Shattered Lives’ describes traumatic brain injury as a ‘silent epidemic’.  It is published by the University’s centre for clinical neuropsychology research under the leadership of Professor Huw Williams.

The report states that such brain injuries most frequently occur among children and young people who have either fallen over or been participating in sport, as well as those involved in fights or road accidents.  The consequences of such incidents can include loss of memory and the report, which cites international research, says that the level of brain injuries among offenders is much higher than in the general population.  A survey carried out of 200 adult male prisoners in Britain, found that 60% claimed to have suffered a head injury.  The report accepts that there may be specific risk factors for brain injury and offending behaviour, but says that improving treatment and introducing screening for young offenders, would in their view deliver significant benefits in terms of reducing crime and saving public money.

Professor Williams said “the young brain, being a work in progress, is prone to ‘risk taking’ and so is more vulnerable to getting injured in the first place, and suffer subtle to more severe problems in attention, concentration and managing one’s mood and behaviour.”

He added “It is rare that brain injury is considered by criminal justice professionals when assessing the rehabilitative needs of an offender”.

Professor Williams went on to say “brain injury has been shown to be a condition that may increase the risk of offending, and it is also a strong ‘marker’ for other key factors that indicate risk for offending”.

The report from the Children’s Commissioner is based on a review of evidence gathered by the Universities of Exeter and Birmingham.  It states that a large number of young people in custody in England tend to have a significant degree of neurodevelopmental disorders and problems relating to such issues, compared to the general population.  This in turn could lead to communication and learning difficulties and emotional and behavioural problems.  The report states that many young offenders are said to have a reading age below that of criminal responsibility which in England and Wales is the age of 10.

Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner of England, once Government, the judiciary and others in the youth justice system to move more quickly to identify neurodevelopmental conditions in young offenders.  She said “our failure to identify neurodevelopmental disorders and put in place measures to prevent young people with such conditions from offending is a tragedy.  It effects the victims of their crimes, the children themselves, their families, the services seeking to change offenders lives for the better and wider society”.

She went on to say “although children who have neurodevelopmental disorders and/or who have suffered brain injuries may know the difference between right and wrong, they may not understand the consequences of their actions, the processes they then go through in Courts or custody, nor have the means to address their behaviour to avoid re-offending”.

Indeed Professor Williams from Exeter University states “it is rare that brain injury is considered by criminal justice professionals when assessing the rehabilative needs of an offender”.

There are occasions when the possible effects of a brain injury upon the issues in a criminal case can be investigated and funding from the Legal Services Commission is sometimes granted for reports to be obtained to investigate that.  However, the constant restriction of the legal aid budget would obviously have it’s own effect on this and particularly if a report is sought merely for the purposes of consideration in sentencing, it is perhaps possible that it is less likely that authority to obtain such a report would be granted.  If it is not granted to assist the Court as part of the Court procedure, then organisations such as the Youth Offending Team and Probation Service, and certainly the Prison Service, are unlikely to have the available funding to obtain these sorts of reports as part of the rehabilitation process.

The above is not legal advice, it is intended to provide information of general interest in current legal issues.