Criminal justice system

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A significant amount of people within the criminal justice system have learning disabilities or some form of specific learning difficulty.

Evidence from the Prison Reform Trust shows that up to 7% of adult prisoners have an IQ under 70, another 25% have an IQ under 80, and this proportion is higher in children and young people. 60% of prisoners have problems with communication - either understanding or expressing themselves or both.

We have contributed towards knowledge about supporting offenders with learning disabilities through various initiatives.

Information for frontline staff and practitioners

People with learning disabilities who get into trouble with the law come into contact with a range of staff and practitioners in the criminal justice system. For many people who are used to working with offenders, it may be the first time they have come into contact with people with learning disabilities. A number of fact sheets have been written for mainstream frontline staff and practitioners to help them feel better informed in how they support people with learning disabilities. 

The fact sheets cover the following topics:

How to spot signs that someone has a learning disability

Finding out about other services that may help


Making information easier to read

Making appointments

Making decisions

Useful information and resources

Thinking Skills programme

With funding from the Department of Health we adapted delivery of the Thinking Skills Programme to suit the needs of prisoners with a learning disability. The Thinking Skills Programme is used by the probation and prison service to support prisoners and those on probation to address their self-control and problem solving skills, and to develop positive relationships.

Currently prisoners with an IQ below 80 are excluded from many programmes (including the Thinking Skills Programme) designed to help offenders change their behaviour because of the reading, writing and cognitive demands within the programme. If offenders can demonstrate that the programme has changed their behaviour they may become eligible for parole. This means that prisoners with learning disabilities spend more time in prison than necessary because they cannot take part in interventions designed to help them reduce their offending risk.

In 2010, the High Court ruled that the Secretary of State for Justice had failed in his duty to provide reasonable adjustments and adequate alternatives for an offender barred from the Thinking Skills Programme because his IQ fell below the required programme admission criteria. We hope this project will prevent this from happening again.

We worked with a team of experts to adapt the existing Thinking Skills material for people with learning disabilities over two years. We ran between two pilot programmes in both the prison and probation service, focusing on the feasibility of the Adapted Thinking Skills Programme.

Information, training and consultancy

We have developed a useful information guide and training for staff working in the criminal justice system. These have been developed in response to requests from highly skilled practitioners who are meeting a range of people who may have a learning disability and/or learning difficulties. They wanted practical information about identifying people with a range of need, ways of adapting their practice, referral routes for specialist services, and resources.

We, along with two other organisations, were commissioned to carry out a service review of support for people with learning disabilities in prisons and Young Offender Institutions in South Staffordshire. We met with prisoners, a range of staff working in prisons, and some people working in other related services. This initiative led to a region-wide meeting to discuss the findings and look at how recommendations such as identifying funding to begin developing easy-read resources might be adopted more widely.


Our factsheet gives useful information about people with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system.

Download the factsheet


Thinking Skills programme

Many people in the prison population have a learning disability, and 60% of inmates have problems with communication.

We know that they don’t receive the support they need to adapt to life in prison, and much of the help offered to prevent reoffending is not adapted for people with learning disabilities. 

The Thinking Skills Programme helps people in prison to understand the reasons for their behaviour, manage their emotions and develop positive relationships. The programme is known to be effective, but until now the course wasn’t suitable for people with learning disabilities.

With a grant from the Department of Health the Foundation worked with the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to adapt the Thinking Skills Programme for people with IQs below 80.

We adapted the course structure, sessions and resources to make them accessible and piloted the adapted programme in three prisons. The evaluation of the adapted programme showed that it was feasible, and NOMS are now taking forward its development. 

If you would like to read more about the adapted Thinking Skills Programme, we have produced the following publications:

Thinking Skills project report

A report describing the work we did to adapt the Thinking Skills programme for people with learning disabilities.

Download the report

Thinking Skills evaluation

A report describing the evaluation of our adaptation of the Thinking Skills programme.

Read the evaluation