Thousands of people may be ending up on the wrong side of the law due to an alcohol-related brain disability caused before birth, a New Zealand judge says.
Auckland District and Youth Court Judge Tony FitzGerald gave the keynote address at the Australasian Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder conference in Brisbane yesterday.
Justice FitzGerald, who has a special interest in the role of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) in youth offending, said failing to address FASD and other neural disabilities was resulting in higher numbers of people becoming entrenched in the criminal justice system.
"We are not identifying these issues and one of the problems for us as a community is that, until we properly identify these issues and properly respond to them, we are not being effective in reducing the risk of reoffending," he said.
"The brain damage is often behind the behaviours that bring them into the criminal justice system. Once they're there, their disability is such that they are at much greater risk of worse outcomes than someone without the disability."
While New Zealand was yet to begin widespread screening for neural disabilities like FASD, caused by women drinking while pregnant, Justice FitzGerald said the country's prevalence rates were likely to match those found by research overseas.
Research figures suggest around 25,000 people who came into contact with the criminal justice system in New Zealand suffered from FASD. Those who suffered from FASD needed to be treated differently in the court system, he said.
The brain damage, caused when a fetus was exposed to alcohol in the womb, often resulted in people being unable to manage their emotions.
FASD sufferers also had difficulty in properly understanding social cues and observing social boundaries.
"For example, with young men entering adolescence, it can often play out with inappropriate sexual behaviour and offending because they don't have the ability to properly understand those social boundaries and social cues."
Resources need to be made available within the court system to ensure sufferers were picked up, he said.
"Then with the benefit of diagnosis, to be able to ensure that the right sort of responses be made to that case to ensure that the risk of reoffending is properly addressed."
Those who were deemed unfit to stand trial because of their disability would be directed to an "appropriate health related outcome" outside the justice system, he said.