Children with mental health conditions and other hidden impairments are far more likely to be given custodial sentences than non-disabled children, according to a new report.
The report also says that children with impairments such as learning difficulties, mental health conditions and autism might not be receiving fair trials because of their difficulties in understanding the court process.
The report – Seen and Heard: supporting vulnerable children in the youth justice system – found a quarter of young offenders (those aged 10 to 18) across England and Wales had special educational needs.
And it accuses youth justice agencies of failing to fulfil their legal duties to prevent discrimination.
The report concludes that identifying disabled children’s impairments, with the possible exception of mental health conditions, was “at best ad hoc”, and that early recognition and provision of support has a “direct bearing” on whether their lives will be “better, free from crime, and, as young adults, more purposeful and productive”.
The report – published by the Prison Reform Trust and the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers – calls on the coalition government to do more to identify and help disabled children as part of its youth justice reforms.
A survey of youth offending team (YOT) staff in England and Wales for the report found that failing to identify and provide for support needs was the most significant factor in determining whether a child received a custodial sentence.
For children whose needs are not identified, how they look and behave in court will often determine whether they receive a custodial sentence, the report says.
The survey found children with mental health conditions and ADHD were five times more likely to receive a custodial sentence than those without; that children with learning difficulties were around two and a half times more likely; and that children with autism were around twice as likely.
The survey also found that only about half of YOT staff receive any training in identifying whether children might have particular impairments.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said that custody for under-18s was a “last resort”, while the government was “working to ensure frontline criminal justice and health agencies focus on identifying learning difficulties and other health problems at an early stage”.
He said the government had funded the Communication Trust to develop a training package for youth justice staff, while the charities I CAN and Dyslexia Action had adapted a questionnaire that staff use to “screen” young people for impairments.
24 November 2010