Reducing vulnerability to harm in adults with cognitive disabilities in the Australian criminal justice system

Eileen Baldry*, Melissa Clarence, Leanne Dowse, Julian Trollor

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Citations (Scopus)


Persons with cognitive disabilities such as intellectual disability, borderline intellectual disability, and acquired brain injury are overrepresented in Australian criminal justice systems both as victims and as offenders. Data obtained in Australia and internationally indicate that up to 12% of the prison population has an intelligence quotient (IQ) of less than 70, with up to 30% having an IQ of between 70 and 80, indicating substantially higher representation of intellectual disability and borderline intellectual disability than in the general population. Indigenous Australian adults in prison are significantly more likely to have intellectual disability than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Points of intervention throughout individuals' trajectories into and through the criminal justice and human service system are investigated, allowing new ways of understanding how persons with intellectual and other cognitive disabilities are vulnerable to the harms of control-and-punishment systems. Using an innovative data-linking and data-merging method, the authors compiled longitudinal administrative data from all criminal justice and human service agencies in New South Wales, Australia, to create life-course pathways for 2,731 persons who had served time in prison in New South Wales and whose mental health and cognitive disability diagnoses were available. Mapping service agency responses and institutional trajectories of these persons from an early age reveal a picture of early police contact and enmeshment in juvenile and adult corrections with high frequency, but often of low duration. Poor recognition of cognitive disability coupled with the presence of mental disorders and substance use disorders is associated with multiple and compounding social disadvantage and vulnerability to harm. This group is subject to multiple, simultaneous, and continuing human service agency interventions, which have only limited impact on their offending and (re)incarceration. Provision of appropriate support before, during, and after imprisonment is likely to reduce these individuals' vulnerability to harm and improve their experiences of community integration.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)222-229
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Complex needs
  • Criminal justice
  • Harm reduction/policy and service intervention
  • Intellectual disability
  • Pathways analysis


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