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Unlocking Dyslexia - Making Good in the Youth Justice System
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In the courts, DFNZ's key focus is on youth justice. In simple terms, this is about ensuring dyslexic youth are not entrapped in a system that treats them unfairly as adults. Difficulty with the acquisition of basic skills like reading and spelling, slower cognitive processing speeds and comprehension, among other things, can contribute to this. In line with this, DFNZ is backing calls to raise the Youth Court age from its current level of 16 years.

Dyslexics are no more prone to criminal behaviour and committing theft, assault, arson, manslaughter or murder than any other population base. Yet they are grossly overrepresented in the youth justice system and prison population. In New Zealand, an estimated 10% of the population is dyslexic, yet percentages climb as high as 90% in our prisons.

At the level of the statistics, there is a gross disconnect when a population incidence of 10% dyslexia converts to an overwhelming majority of offenders in youth justice and prison populations. This is a stark indictment of a justice system failing to take account of the impact that dyslexia can have on an individual’s ability to comprehend the process, understand exactly what they are pleading guilty to and discern the consequences. Just as you wouldn’t ask a person in a wheelchair to run a marathon; you shouldn’t ask a dyslexic to read and/or agree to something they do not comprehend.

With New Zealand in breach of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child (UNCROC), which defines a child as anyone under age of 18, DFNZ is advocating the Government reconsider its position with urgency. It believes it is impractical, inconsistent and unjust to continue to exclude 17 year olds from the youth justice jurisdiction. In light of the impact of neurodisabilities such as dyslexia, arguably the threshold should be even higher.

Youth offending is the dark side of learning difference, the outcome of low self-esteem, alienation, anti-social behavior and/or drug use fuelled by perceived failure to achieve. In the court system, learning difference may present as reduced capacity to follow the legal process, less ability to withstand pressure to make a guilty plea and ignorance of the right or benefit to have a nominated adult in attendance when dealing with police or court officers. A young person 17, 18, 19 or even 20 who has a comprehension age of 13 or communication difficulties is easily manipulated by legal process, and often duped into incriminating themselves as the path of less resistance. And once convicted many young people, unless strongly supported, will be on the slippery slope to career criminal.

The correlations between neurodisabilities, such as dyslexia, and youth crime and prison populations can no longer go ignored. Dyslexia is hugely over-represented in both the youth justice system and the prison population. In New Zealand, an estimated 65-70% of offenders that come before the Youth Court are not formally engaged within the education system. And results from a Ministry of Education screening tool trialed in 2008 on 197 prison inmates showed that 90% were not functionally literate and 80% were not functionally numerate. British, American and Swedish studies all estimate that 30-50% of prisoners are dyslexic.    

The teenage years can be the breakpoint for dyslexics who struggle at school. Often, dyslexia's greatest difficulty is self-esteem – it only becomes a disability if not appropriately addressed. Dyslexia is often misunderstood as just a problem with reading and writing. However, it can affect a spectrum of skills including motor skills, cognitive processing speeds and comprehension, auditory and visual perception, planning and organising, and short-term memory and concentration. Brain research, including studies from Yale and Auckland universities, has shown that dyslexic individuals tend to think in pictures rather than words, receiving and retrieving information in a different part of the brain to neurotypical, word-based thinkers. Put simply, translating these ‘pictures’ back into words, whether spoken or written, takes extra time and considerable effort.

This extra time and effort is the crux of the issue. In the judicial system, where all procedures are essentially word-based, a dyslexic’s inability to quickly process information and comprehend leave them open to entrapment. Propensities to take statements literally, to become confused by information and sensory overload, to act impulsively and to speak before thinking make it difficult to navigate the complexities and nuances of the legal process. Police and court processes are designed to deliver a specific result – a guilty plea and a conviction. These are key performance indicators of the judicial system. When this KPI meets dyslexic propensities, many dyslexic individuals will cave under the pressure.

If youth offending is the dis-ease, education is clearly the best preventative. And if prison is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, school is the community health clinic. Dyslexia is one of the few causes of social dysfunction that can be easily addressed. By prioritising and addressing dyslexia in schools – and ensuring that schools deliver on the legal rights that these students have to accommodations – we avoid flow on adult-related expenses from social services and mental health services through to the huge costs of incarceration in prisons.

New Zealand Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft is a leading proponent of education as a protective factor against youth offending and has in recent years highlighted increasing concerns as to the number of young offenders who have slipped through the educational net because of undiagnosed learning disabilities. He has also noted that schools and teachers are 'firstline crime fighters' with the best chance of helping youths out of a cycle of crime, and that young people outside the school system are virtually the whole of the problem in Youth Court. International dyslexia expert Neil Mackay is also a proponent of education as a preventative. His ironic nine-step guide to 'How to Create a Criminal',outlines what the New Zealand education system does wrong for dyslexic students.

Direct correlations between learning differences/neurodisabilities and youth offending have been well documented. In 2012, the Children's Commissioner for England published a report which ("Nobody Made the Connection: The prevalence of neurodisability in young people who offend", Nathan Hughes et al) showed 43-57% reported prevalence of dyslexia amongst young people in custody, 23-32% learning disabilities, 60-90% communication disorders. In New Zealand, Auckland University's Kate Peirse O'Byrne last year published the first comprehensive analysis of neurodisability and youth offending specific to New Zealand. In a special report published in the Youth Court journal, Issue 67, she noted that failing to take account of neurodisability in responding to offending was indefensible.

The weight of evidence correlating learning differences/neurodisabilities and youth offending is one of five key reasons DFNZ is supporting calls to raise the Youth Court age from its current level of 16 years. The other four reasons are:

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