Introduction

Studies have found that around a quarter of people with learning disabilities may be suspected or convicted of committing an offence at some point over the course of their life. Alongside the social and functional difficulties associated with learning disabilities, those who offend often have adverse historic and/or current life circumstances, mental ill health, and/or substance misuse issues. At the same time, abusive relationships, poor social networks, and a lack of regular planned activities are all strongly related to offending behaviour. This complex array of concerns can make providing social care very challenging. In line with much policy, supporting the rights of people with learning disabilities to live independently, promoting individual choice and social inclusion, may take precedence. However, in the case of an offender, supporting a person to make their own choices may conflict strongly with concerns about personal and public safety and risk. At the same time adverse life circumstances can lead to vulnerability, creating safeguarding concerns. These latter concerns may result in the imposition of considerable unwanted constraints. Such issues are often acutely distressing for all involved. Consequently, negotiating rights, risks, and vulnerabilities can place a great strain on social care practitioners, and on those who are most closely involved in providing everyday support and care.

Strengthening social care and support in this area is important. People with learning disabilities are vulnerable in prison and policy guidelines recommend diversion from prison to less restrictive rehabilitative environments. Ideally this would mean the use of community-based support and treatment services. However, where appropriate local services are unavailable, or unable to manage risk, people with learning disabilities who offend are sometimes moved to secure hospital facilities, which are often far from home. This can lead to further social isolation and exclusion, and the cost of using these services, estimated at around £200,000 per placement per year, can quickly translate into millions of pounds. These costs are often deducted from funds which might otherwise be spent on social care.

This study set out to strengthen social care and support for people with learning disabilities who offend, by focusing on the challenges experienced within close support relationships.