Brain injuries ‘link’ to young offenders

Young people who sustain brain injuries are more likely to commit crimes and end up in prison, research suggests.

The University of Exeter study says such injuries can lead maturing brains to “misfire”, affecting judgement and the ability to control impulses.

It calls for greater monitoring and treatment to prevent later problems.

The findings echo a separate report by the Children’s Commissioner for England on the impact of injuries on maturing brains and the social consequences.

In the report, Repairing Shattered Lives, Professor Huw Williams from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Clinical Neuropsychology Research, describes traumatic brain injury as a “silent epidemic”.

It is said to occur most frequently among children and young people who have fallen over or been playing sport, as well as those involved in fights or road accidents.

The consequences can include loss of memory, with the report citing international research which indicates the level of brain injuries among offenders is much higher than in the general population.

A survey of 200 adult male prisoners in Britain found 60% claimed to have suffered a head injury, it notes.

The report acknowledges there may be underlying risk factors for brain injury and offending behaviour but says improving treatment and introducing screening for young offenders would deliver significant benefits in terms of reducing crime and saving public money.

Prof 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 to suffer subtle to more severe problems in attention, concentration and managing one’s mood and behaviour.

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

“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.”

Right and wrong

The report from the Children’s Commissioner is based on a review of published evidence from the University of Exeter and the University of Birmingham.

It says a large number of young people in custody in England tend to have a significant degree of neurodevelopmental disorders, and problems related to such issues, compared to the general population.

This could lead to communication and learning difficulties and emotional and behavioural problems, it says.

Many young offenders are said to have a reading age below that of criminal responsibility, which is aged 10 in England and Wales.

Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, calls on government, the judiciary and others in the youth justice system to identify neurodevelopmental conditions in young people more rapidly.

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 affects the victims of their crimes, the children themselves, their families, the services seeking to change offenders’ lives for the better, and wider society.

“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 reoffending.”