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Lost in the Criminal Justice System, Byline Times

Guy Taylor investigates the lack of resources devoted to identifying those with learning disabilities and autism in the process of justice. His article quotes SL5's Andrew Sperling and references a couple of Andrew's cases...


John was sentenced to four years in prison in 2019 for an arson offence. He has severe learning disabilities and the verbal and non-verbal functioning of a five to nine-and-a-half-year-old. On top of this, he suffers from dyslexia, ADHD and autism.

In prison, he struggled to cope. His behaviour was described as “bizarre and concerning” and other prisoners took advantage of him, giving him the psychoactive drug Spice on multiple occasions.

“I was absolutely astonished by this case,” Andrew Sperling, a lawyer who assisted with John’s parole, said. “The impact of a prison sentence on somebody like him is so awful, not just that he would struggle to manage, but he gets preyed on by other people.”

No formal assessments had taken place up to that point. Throughout his entire time in prison, none of his conditions appeared to be acknowledged or acted upon.

Sperling commissioned a range of psychological assessments for John, which concluded that he should leave prison and be placed in a learning disability unit for the remainder of his sentence. By this point, he was already eligible for parole and nearing the end of his four-year sentence.

“I think he should have had a hospital order,” Sperling told Byline Times. “As soon as I was able to get someone in to see him, they were like, ‘he’s not going to be able to cope in prison, he needs to be in a learning disability unit.’”

John’s trial would have been extraordinarily confusing. Given little additional support, he would have struggled to understand even the most basic concepts articulated by his solicitor or the judge, and would have had difficulty communicating effectively. His autism would have made the uncertainty of a long, drawn-out court case hard to manage.

“I was amazed at what could have happened at the trial, when I met the guy… he wasn’t able to grasp really, really basic concepts… if he was as bad when I saw him as he was at the time of trial, I can’t believe he was convicted,” Sperling said.

In 2008, Lord Bradley was commissioned by the Government to investigate the experience of people with mental health problems and learning disabilities in the criminal justice system. The Bradley Report was released in 2009 and raised concerns about psychological assessment and screening. Ministers committed to publishing an action plan six months later.

The previous year, the Prison Reform Trust had concluded their landmark study entitled ‘No One Knows’, which exposed issues surrounding the treatment and identification of inmates with learning disabilities and difficulties. Criminologists at the time called for mandatory screening to stop people slipping through the net.

Yet, nearly a decade-and-a-half after these issues were raised in Parliament, stories like John’s are repeated across the prison system.


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