FASD and the Criminal Justice System

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Many individuals with FASD face challenges with the justice system and there is growing interest in how to shape justice approaches, treatment, and policy to better support these individuals. However, there is relatively little research in this area.

CanFASD researchers recently published a systematic review of the literature on criminal justice system (CJS) involvement among individuals with FASD. The review is summarized below.

FASD awareness and knowledge

  • There is clear need and desire among justice professionals for more FASD knowledge, training, and resources
  • FASD is emerging as an important issue to consider in the courtroom

Prevalence and screening

  • There is no clear consensus on rates of FASD in the CJS, but most studies show that rates are higher than in the general population
  • Estimates range from 10-23% in North American studies of justice-involved individuals with FASD, and are as high as 36% in one study of detained Australian youth with FASD
  • There is a wide range of FASD screening methods in justice settings, and early evidence has shown the potential benefit of some measures

Justice-based profiles and perspectives

  • Justice-involved individuals with FASD seem to experience different risk patterns and needs, and complex clinical presentations
  • Compared to those without FASD, justice-involved youth with FASD have shown impairments in a range of cognitive abilities
  • Justice-involvement in adults with FASD has been associated with: substance use; lack of access to an FASD-trained support worker; lower daily structure, routine, and supervision; and diagnosis later in life
  • Protective factors may buffer the risk of reoffending for some youth with FASD who are justice-involved
  • Factors that may help adults with FASD to move out of the CJS include: hope for a better future; willingness to change; and resilience
  • Staying in school and refraining from substance use have been associated with lower rates of legal problems for adolescents and adults with FASD

Offending patterns

  • One early study suggested that crimes against persons were the most common offense type for adolescents and adults with FASD
  • Many justice-involved youth with FASD experience lengthy and deep-rooted offending patterns and earlier first contact with police compared to those without FASD


  • There is very little published research in this area. In one study of a Canadian program for justice-involved adults with suspected FASD, service providers perceived the program to build capacity, humanize offenders, and create bridges, and also identified barriers that get in the way of moving forward

Researchers, service providers, and policy-makers are eager to pursue change for people with FASD who are involved in the CJS, but more research evidence is needed to guide this change. Areas where studies are especially needed include: FASD screening, assessment, and interventions specific to justice settings; training for justice professionals; crime prevention; and identification of factors that support resiliency and prosocial behaviours for people with FASD.

Click here to read the full issue paper devoted to this topic.

Visit the CanFASD website for more information and resources related to FASD and the justice system.

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