The prevalence and treatment of people with Asperger’s Syndrome in the criminal justice system

Ann Browning and Laura Caulfield
criminal justice system
The prevalence and treatment of people with Asperger’s Syndrome in the criminal justice system
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Understandings of Asperger’s Syndrome in the Criminal Justice System

Numerous authorities have expressed concern that those working within the criminal

justice sector lack the requisite training to respond effectively to those with AS (Allen

et al., 2008; Archer, 2007; Bather et al., 2008; Debbaudt, 2002; Haskins and Silva, 2006; Mayes, 2003; Murrie et al., 2002). Archer (2007), a serving Police Inspector and father to a son with AS, claims that very few professionals in the criminal justice system have any real understanding of autism, and highlights that many with ASDs remain undiagnosed, misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, diagnosed after imprisonment (Mayes, 2003); or while detained in a mental health facility (Scragg and Shah, 1994). According to the National Autistic Society (NAS), 90 per cent of police officers and 80 per cent of

solicitors consider understandings of autism within the legal profession to be inadequate (Adams-Spink, 2005), thus lending credence to the view that the criminal justice system is not sufficiently knowledgeable to manage effectively those with AS. Murrie et al. (2002) suggest that the responses of criminal justice professionals and those involved in the justice process are inconsistent, particularly in terms of sentencing. They argue that an offender with AS who demonstrates a deficit of empathy may be misunderstood and thought of as cold, calculating, remorseless and as such potentially a recidivist offender – thus eliciting little sympathy. The outcome may differ significantly however if: the decision-maker sees deficient empathy as a neurobiological deficit, it may be a mitigating factor that elicits sympathy from the police, prosecutors, or jurors who feel compassion for a person with an impoverished emotional life and see the defendant as congenitally deficient in one or more of the normal inhibitors against crime. (Murrie et al., 2002: 66)

Having explored the experiences of six individuals with AS who became involved

with the criminal justice sector, Allen et al. (2008) conclude that those with the disorder

are vulnerable and describe how the majority of individuals with a diagnosis of AS who

do fall foul of the law struggle to negotiate the criminal justice system. Mayes (2003: 98)

in particular writes of the lack of understanding demonstrated within the judicial process, and expresses concerns that:

a criminal defendant with autism may find his fate resting in the hands of jurors who may entertain common misperceptions about autism, and who may be sceptical of expert witnesses who themselves may not be familiar with autism … the life and liberty of a criminal defendant with autism may rest in the hands of an ‘expert’ who has only a cursory knowledge of the  defendant’s impairment.”

 

 

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