Government pledges to cut number of disabled prisoners


The government has promised to reduce the number of people with learning difficulties and mental health conditions in prison.

The pledge comes in a new cross-government action plan, seven months after Lord Bradley published an independent review of how people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties are treated in the criminal justice system.

Lord Bradley’s report called for “better charging prosecution and sentencing decisions”, to allow more people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties to be dealt with in the community rather than in prison.

In its new action plan, the government pledges that, within five years, all criminal courts and police stations will have access to “liaison and diversion services” that can assess the health needs of offenders.

These services will “reduce the number of people with learning disabilities and mental health problems who are in prison unnecessarily” and allow the police and courts to make “informed decisions about charging and sentencing”.

Justice minister Claire Ward said the action plan would strengthen co-ordination between health services, police and the courts, to ensure “the right balance” between treatment and punishment.

Paul Jenkins, chief executive of the mental health charity Rethink, said: “It’s great that the government is recognising the modern scandal that thousands of people with mental illness are being sent to prison inappropriately.”

But he warned that “aspirations to change the system aren’t enough”, and added: “We need this and future governments to make sure the positive words in this report actually happen.”

The action plan also says that a pilot scheme aimed at making it easier to “screen” prisoners for learning difficulties will be completed by early 2010.

There will be continued work on training prison officers in mental health and learning disability awareness, and a rollout of an awareness training programme for all probation staff.

The government also promises to raise awareness among judges.

Rethink welcomed the commitment to deliver mental health awareness training for all frontline staff, but said it needed to be a “higher priority”.

The action plan also pledges to investigate how best to support offenders with mental health conditions and learning difficulties to resettle in the community.

And it says the government aims to provide easyread materials for prisoners with learning difficulties, and ensure their access to primary healthcare services – such as health checks – and a better understanding of the criminal justice system and the community support available to them.

18 November 2009