#NQ6: Disability and (in)justice

Fair treatment for all is one of the defining principles of the UK justice system, but is it always delivered to clients and victims who have disabilities? NQ investigates.

In the UK, almost one in five people live with a disability.

For that 11.9 million, the likelihood of an encounter with the justice system is significantly increased.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons reports that 19 per cent (16,000) of the prison population have a disability. Home Office estimates of 62,000 disability motivated hate crimes taking place each year also make for startling statistics.

With so many of the population’s most vulnerable people coming into contact with the legal system, questions have been raised about the efficacy of a system designed to protect and serve.

Victims of crime

Disabled people are significantly more likely to be victims of crime.

A recent report by Victim Support reveals that people with disabilities are three and a half times more likely to suffer serious violence with injury, and around one and a half times more likely to be a victim of personal theft than their counterparts not living with a disability.

Despite those alarming figures, only 3,629 disability hate crimes were recorded by the police in 2015/16. This disparity between the Home Office estimates and actual reporting could have something to do with the perception disabled people have of the police and justice system.

Only 38 per cent of disabled people surveyed by the Institute of Public Policy Research thought the justice system was effective. The Equality and Human Rights Commission also discovered many disability hate crimes went unreported because 36 per cent of those questioned didn’t think the police could do anything; 31 per cent thought the police wouldn’t be interested; and 17 per cent thought the incident was too trivial to report.

Official figures show that there were 707 convictions for disability hate crimes in 2015/16 – something that the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, said meant any type of hate crime “will not be ignored.”

However, this figure represents less than one per cent of the crimes reported. Compare this with an 83.8 per cent conviction rate for racially motivated/religious hate crime and 83 per cent for homophobic/transphobic hate crime; it is clear that even though the CPS are committed to tackling disability related hate crime, not enough is being done to punish those responsible – and more importantly – instil victims of crime with the confidence that justice will be served.

Clients with disabilities.

As of March 2017, there were 94,600 prisoners across the United Kingdom.

The Prison Reform Trust estimates that 36 per cent of those have a physical or mental disability making their life inside significantly more difficult than those without.

Twice as likely to develop a dependence on prescription medication meant for other inmates, feeling unsafe, worried and confused; 25 per cent of prisoners with a disability said they had self-harmed and 40 per cent attempted suicide.

Cuts and reforms to the prison service may have had an impact on the level of care inmates receive – those with disabilities being hit the hardest.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons Annual report revealed that 44 per cent of prisoners with a disability had been victimised by staff. Others reported being threatened or intimidated.

The Prisoners Advice Service reports that on occasion prison officers have refused to push inmates in wheelchairs on the grounds that either the officer concerned hadn’t been trained or felt that they might be seen as giving special favours to certain prisoners.

An aging prison population also poses serious questions as to whether the service is equipped to deliver care plans for prisoners with dementia, mobility and sight issues or those who are approaching end of life. At the end of 2016, the numbers of prisoners aged 50 and over was 169 per cent higher than in 2002.

More shockingly, research shows a disproportionate representation of people with mental health issues in the justice system.

Sixty-six per cent of prisoners have a personality disorder compared to just five per cent of the general population; 45 per cent suffer from depression or anxiety compared to 14 per cent of the general population; and eight per cent of prisoners have some form of psychosis in comparison to less than one per cent of the general population.

These statistics go some way to explain the rising self-harm and suicide rates across the country’s prisons; and could be why between 2011 and 2014 there was a 20% increase in the number of male prisoners being transferred to hospital under the 1983 Mental Health Act.

Despite this, the use of hospital orders – court orders that allow defendants to be sent for medical care instead of receiving a prison sentence – has declined by more than 25% since 2011 for men and remains at a similar level among women.

Systematic cuts to mental health services over the years has seen the number of beds available for mental health patients in the UK slashed by about three-quarters since 1986-87 to about 17,000 meaning the overflow often end up in prison cells.

The criminalisation of those with mental health issues has contributed to the ever increasing numbers of those being incarcerated each year in overcrowded and underfunded prisons. And while the UK prison service may be feeling the strain, it is actual inmates who suffer as a result of failing mental health services both outside and inside of prisons.

Taytula Burke



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