Staff in the NSW criminal justice system understanding of people with and without disability who offend

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Copyright: Snoyman, Phillip
It is estimated that as many as half of all offenders or alleged offenders in NSW prisons have a mental health or cognitive disability. The way criminal justice staff conceptualise disability affects their interaction with these persons. It has been theorised that staff working in the criminal justice system use implicit theories to make sense of the presence of people with and without disability who offend. In this study 713 staff working across various criminal justice system agencies responded to one of eight vignettes in each of which the offender was described as either ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Australian’ and as having intellectual disability, mental disorder, dual diagnosis, or no disability. A mixed methods design revealed that the space of the criminal justice system frames staff understanding, while the agency for which they work, their occupations, age, sex, and experience, provide stability and limit the scope of understanding of offenders. Using a critical realism lens, staff implicit understanding is found to differ from models posited in previous studies. Staff do not use single models but develop complex understanding across many theoretical models. A theoretical model emerges with six different dimensions for understanding people who offend. Staff use an increasing number of dimensions to understand people as they are perceived to be more complex, but staff do not appear to understand people with dual diagnosis. People without disability who offend are understood along five dimensions – offending (morality and human agency), intervention and management (appropriate management strategies and understanding historical causality), compassionate interaction (facilitating access to support systems), fairness (equitable relationships) and supports (staff ‘wish list’ for available supports). People with disability who offend are understood along a further three dimensions: disabling (factors contributing to offending), social inclusion (services and supports enabling social participation), and hopelessness (staff feelings about change). Staff sense making situates each individual along the spectrum of each dimension, and varies according to how other staff accept the staff definition of complementary relationships. Staff understand people with and without disability who offend using dimensions including human agency, embodiment and social interaction. Theoretical, policy and practice implications of these findings are discussed.
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Snoyman, Phillip
Baldry, Eileen
Hall, Ralph
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PhD Doctorate
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