In the Media

Giving young learning disabled people a break

PUBLISHED October 25, 2011

Mencap courses aim to break the link between young people with learning disabilities and committing crime In the Oldbury offices of the crime reduction charity Nacro , five young men sit around a table, swinging on their chairs and readjusting their headgear. Between them, they have convictions and cautions for burglary, robbery and cannabis possession. All are aged between 16 and 19 and have mild to moderate learning disabilities. Do they always understand why they get in trouble, Mencap worker Neil Pensom asks them. "No, not really," says Donovan Haynes, 18. " Has anyone in the group ever done something that got them in trouble because someone else told them to? Haynes has. Would it have been hard to say no? "It would have made me look like a bitch ... You need to have respect, man." And what happens if you lose it? "You end up getting beaten up. You'd be a loner." The link between learning disabilities and offending is well documented . Almost a quarter of prisoners under 18 in England and Wales have a learning disability, according to 2007 research. Mencap's Raising Your Game project, a five-year, ?4.9m scheme financed by the Big Lottery Fund, is seeking to bring the figures down by helping young people with learning disabilities understand the system and the effect of offending on them and the victims. It will also address the failure of criminal justice professionals to take the needs of young learning disabled people into account. Adele Doherty, programme manager for Raising Your Game, says she has repeatedly heard of offenders being given curfews without anyone checking they understand the 24-hour clock or can even tell the time. Yet breaking a curfew can result in custody. Some 200 young people have been involved in developing services, in partnership with Nacro and the children's communication charity I Can . Next month, the six-week course being trialled by the group in Oldbury, in the West Midlands, will be rolled out in seven areas across England. Mencap wants 2,000 young people who have offended or are at risk of doing so to go on the course over the next three years. Many of them will have spent time in care or have come from backgrounds with little parental support, where they have not been taught appropriate behaviour, says Doherty. "They don't necessarily understand the consequences of their decisions, and many are bullied or come under peer pressure to commit crime," she explains. In Oldbury, the course leaders have their work cut out. The boys do what is asked of them but have limited attention spans. Pensom, though, says he believes they are getting something out of it. The boys' susceptibility to peer pressure is probably responsible for at least some of their unwillingness to open up, he says. Away from the bravado of the group, all are more forthcoming. James Davies, 17, says although it hasn't changed him "too much", he has calmed down a lot. "It just makes you think. Makes you realise how dumb you can be." Haynes was doing two robberies a week previously to get money. Now, he says, he keeps out of trouble. "It ain't worth it. You get eight years for that stuff." What has made him see it differently? "Speaking about it. It made me think more." Some names have been changed. Young people Learning disability Youth justice UK criminal justice Disability Crime Rachel Williams © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds