Mental Health and Sentencing Seminar

The Sentencing Academy was pleased to collaborate with the University of York to hold a ‘Mental Health and Sentencing’ event on 6 March 2024. Addressing the theme of the day, there were three  speakers covering different areas of the mental health and sentencing field, followed by an insight Q&A session chaired by Professor Adam Crawford, Professor of Policing and Social Justice at York Law School.

Dr Ailbhe O’Loughlin, Senior Lecturer in Law at York Law School, gave an ‘Overview of Mental Health and Sentencing’, setting out the legal framework that governs sentencing when mental health is an issue. Guiding the audience through the wide range of conditions that may be relevant to sentencing, Dr O’Loughlin discussed some of the evidence judges may base their decision on when it comes to psychiatric considerations. The overview addressed the additional difficulties vulnerable offenders can face whilst in prison and although there are special sentencing options available to judges, they are often underutilised. Ultimately, the evidence of disproportionally high rates of mental disorders amongst offender populations is cause for concern, but there is a lack of a clear definition and inadequate data gathering in the criminal justice system. Dr O’Loughlin concluded that special sentencing options can avoid harmful or inappropriate imprisonment and may reduce reoffending, with more needing to be done in response to the current mental health crisis in prisons.

Sandra Drysdale, Senior Probation Officer, addressed ‘Pre-Sentence Reports and The Role of the Probation Service in Court’. Talking through the Probation Service’s provision of pre-sentence reports to the adult criminal courts, Ms Drysdale detailed the various factors that go into discerning an individual’s likelihood of re-offending and the ultimate Probation Service proposal. Noting that approximately 91,000 people under the supervision of the Probation Service have mental health issues, but only 1,302 of them had started mental health treatment as part of a community sentence in 2022, a need for greater mental health support was reiterated. Focusing on offender suitability for Mental Health Treatment Requirements (MHTR), the intricacies of the referral, assessment and order procedures were explained. The importance of working in partnership with others to improve the criminal justice system was a powerful final point in the pre-sentence reports dialogue.

Dr Christopher Ince, a consultant psychiatrist in intellectual disabilities and a national specialty advisor on autism for the NHS, was the third panelist. His talk on ‘Sentencing People with a Learning Disability and Autistic People: A Perspective from Psychiatry’ provided a crucial understanding of the issues those with neurodevelopmental disorders face across different stages of the criminal justice process and the impact of potential legislative changes. With 15-20% of the general population having some form of neurodivergence, Dr Ince set out the importance of the topic. At arrest, in court, on community supervision, in prison and upon release, neurodivergent offenders grapple with unique challenges, emphasising that more needs to be done to help this population. Using examples of successful local police practices in Devon, West Yorkshire, Northamptonshire and Sussex, strategies for proactively addressing neurodivergence related issues were presented.

The event was well attended by a range of academics, students, the voluntary sector, and health practitioners. We are grateful to our speakers for sharing their insight, knowledge and understanding; for the Chair who kept us all on point and on time and for York Law School at the University of York for hosting the seminar in partnership with the Sentencing Academy.