Offenders should be screened for head injuries, researchers say

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More than half of prisoners have suffered head injuries which researchers have identified as risk factor for ‘earlier, more violent offending’, a new study published in The Lancet reports.

The study, co-authored by Professor Nathan Hughes from the Department of Sociological Studies and led by the University of Exeter, recommends that offenders should be screened when entering the justice system to better support their medical needs, reduce the risk of re-offending and lower the cost of incarceration.

Researchers analysed data from existing studies and found that 10-20 per cent of people in custody have “complicated mild traumatic brain injury or moderate to severe head injury”, with “30-40 per cent having milder traumatic brain injuries”.

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are linked to greater violence and to problems when in prison. Researchers believe that this may be because a brain injury can compromise neurological functions for self-regulation and social behaviour, and increases risk of behavioural and psychiatric disorders.

TBIs result from serious blows to the head such as in an assault, fall or car crash and cause permanent brain changes.

Young offenders with traumatic brain injuries are particularly at risk of self-harm and suicidal behaviour, the study notes.

Research has suggested the lifetime costs of TBI are £155,000 for a person aged 15 with a ‘mild to moderate’ injury - £95,000 in healthcare costs and £60,000 as a result of additional offending. The study also found that TBI is linked to poor engagement in treatment and infractions when in custody and reoffending.

Researchers say however that some progress has already been made. UK Parliamentary bodies are acknowledging the need to take account of traumatic brain injuries in the criminal justice system.

There are also initiatives in England that make neurodisability screening available to people entering youth custody, as well as a number of pilot projects to assess for brain injuries and other neurodisabilities in young adults and adult prisons.