Further funding and research is urgently needed into screening, assessment and interventions for young people with neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) who are involved with the youth justice system (YJS), according to a study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology.

The study is the first systematic review of its kind and was informed by the necessity to identify appropriate and effective approaches to reduce detention and recidivism for young people with NDDs, due to the high prevalence of this population in youth detention compared to the general population.

The authors searched five data bases for studies including young people aged 10–18 years involved with the YJS and who had a NDD, including those with intellectual disability (ID), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), developmental language disorder (DLD) and specific learning disorder (SLD).

The researchers found 18 peer-reviewed articles (9 screening/assessment; 9 intervention studies) that met their criteria and then analysed the findings of each study to investigate the effectiveness of screening, assessment and interventions methods.

Effective and early interventions can improve overall quality of life

From analysing the screening and assessment studies, the researchers conclude that comprehensive and multidisciplinary standardised testing, conducted in a conducive environment, is required to reliably identify youth with NDDs in the YJS.

When looking at the intervention studies, the researchers found that effective intervention methods can improve communication and language skills, educational achievement, employment, living and social functioning; modify criminogenic, dysfunctional or destructive behaviours; improve capacity to negotiate judicial processes; reduce the negative impact of incarceration; reduce recidivism; and improve overall quality of life.

For example, one study evaluated cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) as an intervention for people with an intellectual disability in the CJS. The study found that of the four offenders who completed the intervention, all developed a sense of empathy towards the victim and had altered attitudes and cognitive distortions associated with sexual offenses toward children.

Another study reported improved quality of life for a youth with autism spectrum disorder through a multicomponent behaviour intervention (MCBI) program, which saw the individual enter back into mainstream education and supported community living.

They note that the interventions that had the greatest success were those that offered intensive interventions over a long period of time, and those that identified and prioritised participants’ needs, goals, learning styles, strengths, skill deficits and environmental exposures to promote protective factors and reduce recidivism.

Current research is limited and of poor quality 

Although these findings are welcomed by the researchers, they conclude that research that evaluates screening, assessment or intervention approaches for young people with NDD in the YJS is limited, and often study quality is poor.

They also highlight that there is limited acknowledgement of cultural and linguistic diversity of young people and Indigenous-led approaches, which they argue is vital given the overrepresentation of Indigenous young people in youth justice settings globally.

Ultimately, their research highlights the need for policy and legislative changes enacting the compulsory provision of effective screening and assessment during early years of life to detect NDDs and establish appropriate interventions. These interventions, they say, are essential for enabling improved life trajectories and prevention of youth detention.

Global attention needed regarding young people with NDDs at risk of YJS involvement

The study's authors are now calling for greater funding allocated towards prevention strategies that eliminate the incarceration and reduce the recidivism of young people with NDDs.

“Collectively, as researchers, advocates and responsive global citizens it is time to question established legal environments that normalise the processing and incarceration of young people with NDDs. It is morally and ethically irresponsible to ignore an atmosphere in which the control, punitive management and punishment of youth with disabilities may be accepted and the provision of appropriate programs may be deficient.

“Detaining youth with a NDD violates the fundamental notion of a child’s right to freedom, liberty and protection from harm. This systematic review highlights the need for global attention regarding young people with NDDs at risk of YJS involvement and the issues they face in these settings,” they conclude.