A new UK report finds there is a link between brain injury in childhood and crime in young people, and points to evidence that brain trauma can cause maturing brains to “misfire” and disrupt the development of self-restraint, social judgement and impulse control. It calls for more collaboration among health and criminal justice authorities to spot brain injuries early, treat them properly, and ensure they are taken account of throughout the criminal justice process.
Huw Williams, a professor of psycology at the Centre for Clinical Neuropsychology Research, University of Exeter, produced the report, which was released online on 19 October, under commission from the Barrow Cadbury Trust, as part of its work to support the Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance. The Trust is an independent charity that supports vulnerable and marginalised people in society.
The report describes the impact that brain trauma in childhood can have on young people as they develop into adults, and outlines the criminal justice consequences of such injuries going untreated.
A press statement from the University of Exeter says the report looks at the connection between crime in young people and the “silent epidemic” of traumatic brain injury in childhood.
These injuries, which can result from falls, playing sports, suffering car accidents or being involved in fights, can go undetected, and if they are not treated, then because of their effect on the maturing brain, can result in young people re-offending.
A section of the report describes in detail the interruption to brain development that can occur as a result of trauma. The result is that areas of the brain that affect the development of temperance (ability to restrain and moderate actions), social judgement and impulse control can “misfire”.
For example, the report points out that different parts of the brain develop at different rates:
“It appears, therefore, that the brain system related to rewards (the meso-limbic area) is developing rapidly relative to the other systems. Especially, it seems, compared to the frontal system that is supposed to regulate it, and the social and emotional systems that will, in time, moderate it.”
Thus while the young person’s brain has “an adult-like ability to reason”, there is a “heightened need for basic reward”, and as Williams explains:
“The young brain, being a work in progress, is prone to ‘risk taking’ and so is more vulnerable to getting injured in the first place, and to suffer subtle to more severe problems in attention, concentration and managing one’s mood and behaviour.”
The Transition to Adulthood Alliance (T2A) began looking at the concept of maturity in a criminal justice context in 2011.
At a meeting hosted by Lord Keith Bradley, experts in neurology, psychology and criminology all confirmed there is evidence to support the idea that developmental maturity should be taken into account throughout the criminal justice process.
“Indeed, maturity can be a better indication of adulthood than reaching a particular chronological age,” says the report.
“It is rare that brain injury is considered by criminal justice professionals when assessing the rehabilitative needs of an offender, even though recent studies from the UK have shown that prevalence of TBI [traumatic brain injury] among prisoners is as high as 60%,” says Williams.
“Brain injury has been shown to be a condition that may increase the risk of offending, and it is also a strong ‘marker’ for other key factors that indicate risk for offending,” he adds.
The report says more should be done to identify and manage brain injuries early. This means training for school staff to make sure young people receive the right kind of support for neuro-rehabilitation.
The report also calls for more awareness throughout the criminal justice system of the effect that trauma can have on the brain, and recommends screening of young people as standard.
“The transition to adulthood is difficult enough for all of us, even when we have family and friends to rely on. Add to this the effects of acquired brain injury that this report sets out for us and it becomes clearer and even more important that agencies and practitioners, who will come across such young people within the criminal justice system, know and understand what can and should be done.”
She says the report invites people in charge of commissioning and providing services in health and crimininal justice to work together to make sure brain injuries are spotted early, treated properly, and taken account of throughout the criminal justice process.