People with intellectual disability are not only over-represented as victims of crime, they are also over-represented as suspects or alleged offenders within the criminal justice system (French, 2007; Hayes, 2000, in Ellem & Wilson, 2010). Some commentators have suggested that as many as 35 percent of the young people in juvenile justice detention in Australia fall into the mild to moderate range of intellectual disability (West, 2011).

Research demonstrates that people with intellectual disability are most likely to commit offences involving impulsive or unpremeditated behaviour, rather than crimes involving planning and foresight. Offenders with intellectual disability also more likely to commit relatively minor offences, but to commit these offences repeatedly. They are also more likely to be charged with public order offences (French, 2007).

Many people with intellectual disability experience wide-ranging psychological and socio-economic disadvantages, which can predispose them to being charged with public order offences. MacDonald (2008) discusses several examples of the relationship between disadvantage and crime:

  • Poor ability to manage daily life activities, such as budgeting for food and maintaining accommodation, which leads to ‘survival crimes’ 
  • Poor organisational skills and memory, which leads to a failure to meet minor legal obligations 
  • Lack of education and knowledge about socially-acceptable behaviours and behaviours that constitute a crime 
  • Limited sex education and poor ability to discriminate between ‘public’ and ‘private’ behaviours 
  • Visibility in public spaces, as a result of poverty, homelessness and lack of daily occupation, which attracts high levels of surveillance 
  • Congregation amongst high-need populations and ‘survival cultures’ where conflict, abuse and exploitation are common 
  • Learned behaviours resulting from life experiences that include lack of dignity, privacy and respect afforded to their person and property, and victimisation.
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