written by Tom Smith
The Neurodivergence in Criminal Justice Network (NICJN) is a research and knowledge exchange group, created and jointly co-ordinated by Dr Tom Smith (Associate Professor in Law). Founded in 2021, the NICJN is primarily focused on promoting an evidence-led approach to the challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals in criminal justice systems. Tom is supported by Joint Co-ordinator Dr Nicole Renehan (Durham University); an Advisory Group, consisting of network members; and a Lived Experience Group (consisting of members with direct experience of neurodivergence and criminal justice).
‘Neurodivergent’ commonly describes cognitive and neurological development which is different or atypical. This relates primarily to communication, learning, attention, sensory processing, and mood regulation. Forms of neurodivergence include Autism, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia, among numerous others in this expanding category. Individuals drawn into the criminal justice system (CJS) – as suspects, defendants, victims or witnesses – generally face significant challenges due to the stressful, complex and specialised nature of criminal proceedings. The environment and routines of criminal justice settings – including police stations, courts and prisons – can be isolating, confusing and traumatic. These challenges are acute for vulnerable persons generally, including those with physical and mental health issues (see, for example, the conclusions of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2020).
However, engagement with criminal proceedings and the institutions and figures involved (such as lawyers and police officers) can be particularly challenging for neurodivergent individuals, due to the nature of neurodivergence and the manner in which criminal justice generally operates (for example, the emphasis placed on personal interaction). Evidence suggests that not only is neurodivergence prevalent within criminal justice (a recent estimate suggests half of prisoners are neurodivergent), but that significant barriers to a positive and effective experience remain at all stages.
Since 2020, there has been a significant increase in interest and attention paid to these issues. As part of this, the NICJN brings together key voices in the area, including researchers (from varied disciplines including forensic science, psychology, and law); clinical and legal practice; and community members who are neurodivergent (or have a personal connection to neurodivergent individuals) and have been involved in criminal proceedings, and are therefore experts by experience. There are currently more than 150 members of the network from across the UK and internationally.
A key aspect of the NICJN is facilitating communication between different but related communities by providing a platform for sharing their work, interests, activities and voice. It aims to act as a ‘switchboard’, connecting interested people to a single ‘hub’ for knowledge and expertise. For example, the NICJN resource collection is a ‘one stop shop’ for literature, information, and specialist knowledge on this area, with the goal that the collection will enable anyone to easily locate useful information and specialist insight on neurodivergence and criminal justice.
In the long-term, the NICJN aims to be part of a drive to embed research evidence into everyday criminal justice practice; to raise awareness and understanding of the issues in this area; to promote reform by pursuing positive changes through exchange within and beyond the network; and advance knowledge through collaborative publication, presentation, evidence-gathering and funded research.
Since its creation the network has been active in a variety of ways. The network was launched in July 2021, with a themed conference focusing on Autism in Criminal Justice. It included presentations by a range of experts on autism and policing, courts, and prisons; and the accounts of individuals with lived experience. The network sends out regular updates to members on developments in the field, including new publications; events; funding opportunities; and calls for participants in research studies. The network recently contributed to a lecture for criminal barristers on neurodivergence in criminal proceedings. The network is currently involved in the early stages of two projects – one working with a Government-sponsored criminal justice agency in developing its neurodivergence strategy; and the other working with a criminal justice NGO looking to develop a better approach to screening for neurodivergence in the criminal justice system.
The last few years have been exciting for the network – it has grown quickly, and forms part of a broad chorus of voices calling for a new approach to criminal justice in this context – to which institutions are responding. As a research and knowledge-exchange group focused on impact in the real world, this represents a ‘golden moment’ to genuinely re-shape public policy and professional practice for good, with the potential for a major positive impact on the health and wellbeing of neurodivergent people.