Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Aboriginal Prisoners with Cognitive Impairment: Is This the Highest Risk Group?

Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Aboriginal Prisoners with Cognitive Impairment: Is This the Highest Risk Group?

Article excerpt


Cognitive impairment (CI) or cognitive disability describes deficits in mental processing affecting memory, reasoning, comprehension, communication and learning ability. People who are cognitively impaired often have an intellectual disability (ID) or an acquired brain injury and are over-represented in the criminal justice system (Baldry et al. 2013; Dias et al. 2013; Indig et al. 2011; Jackson et al. 2011; Hayes 2000; Vanny et al. 2009). ID is characterised by impairments in intellectual ability and adaptive functioning and is often acknowledged by standardised IQ scores of less than 70 (American Psychiatric Association 2013). The prevalence of ID in the general Australian population is estimated to be approximately 2.9 percent (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014b) yet much higher rates have been found in Australian offender cohorts, where ID prevalence has ranged from eight to 15 percent (Dias et al. 2013; Frize, Kenny & Lennings 2008; Indig et al. 2011). This proportion is significantly higher when including offenders identified as having IQ scores in the borderline ID range (<80).

There are several factors that explain why people with cognitive impairment may have an increased likelihood of contact with the criminal justice system. These include difficulties regulating behaviour, impaired decision making, problems communicating, a poor understanding of criminal justice procedures, poor memory and attentiveness and social immaturity (Australian Human Rights Commission 2014; Brown & Kelly 2012; Cockram 2000; Gray, Forell & Clarke 2009; Rushworth 2011; Simpson 2013; Vanny, Levy & Hayes 2008). Having a disability and underprivileged living circumstances enhances susceptibility to homelessness, substance misuse, poor general health, low levels of community support, visibility to police and ultimately criminal engagement (Baldry, Dowse & Clarence 2012; Holland, Clare & Mukhopadhyay 2002; Mackelprang et al. 2014; Simpson 2013). People with cognitive impairment are additionally vulnerable to physical and sexual trauma, coercion, peer pressure and victimisation (Australian Human Rights Commission 2014; Baldry et al. 2013; Baldry, Dowse & Clarence 2012; Mackelprang et al. 2014; Vanny, Levy & Hayes 2008; Simpson 2013; Villamanta Disability Rights Legal Service 2012).

Indigenous Australians

While less is known about the prevalence of cognitive impairment among Indigenous offenders, extant findings suggest they have higher levels than non-Indigenous offenders (Baldry, Dowse & Clarence 2012; Bhandari et al. 2015; Dias et al. 2013; Dowse et al. 2011; Frize et al. 2008; Haysom et al. 2014; Holland & Persson 2011; Simpson & Sotiri 2004). These findings reflect the health and socio-economic disparities in the population. Indigenous Australians have higher rates of disability than non-Indigenous Australians across all age groups (ABS 2014a), including four times the rate of ID (ABS 2007).

Higher instances of disability occur against a backdrop of marginalisation, disadvantage, intergenerational trauma, discrimination, family and cultural breakdown, unemployment and poor educational attainment (Australian Human Rights Commission 2008; Dingwall & Cairney 2010; Glasson et al. 2005; Hollinsworth 2013; North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency 2013; Productivity Commission 2011; Sotiri & Simpson 2006). This environment has often cultivated dysfunctional communities with high levels of alcohol abuse, poor health, violence and injury. Many of the assessment tools employed to detect cognitive impairment may be culturally inappropriate (Dingwall, Lindeman & Cairney 2014; Dingwall, Pinkerton & Lindeman 2013). This may be because of a lack of normative data on Indigenous populations, assessors with little cross-cultural training, language differences, a lack of client motivation during assessment, assessment stimuli that have no localised relevance and the neglect of culture-specific conceptualisations of health (Australian Human Rights Commission 2008; Bohanna et al. …

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