Speech and Language Therapy and the criminal justice sector

What makes a speech and language therapist an expert in the field of communication?

About 5% of the general population have communication difficulties. Sometimes it is accompanied by a learning disability or a mental illness. In any case, such individuals often have a reduced ability to understand and express information. These communication difficulties can cause anxiety, anger and frustration, depression, low self-esteem and self-confidence. All these emotions may result in challenging behaviour.

The role of a speech and language therapist is to develop the individual’s communication skills to enable her or him to participate in education and employment, as well as in social and functional situations. The work done with the individual is practical and delivers swift and impressive results.

  • More than 60% of young people within the justice system have a communication disability.
  • More than a third of young offenders have speaking and listening skills below level 1 of the Adult Education Curriculum, a 11-year-old level.
  • Their communication and literacy difficulties mean that more than three-quarters cannot benefit from education and therapy programmes.

Identifying speech, language and communication needs

By the time young people enter the youth justice system, many of those with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) have developed strategies for masking its impact  – and are probably unaware that they have an SLCN.

This might include:

• Having a good level of surface chat which they cannot maintain when conversations develop
• Being very quiet and seemingly compliant
• Using aggression to deflect hard conversations or to avoid having to admit that they don’t understand
• Being disruptive and non compliant

This is why many SLCN are only recognised after a young person has entered the criminal justice system and not before. Often, the issues are not identified until a psychologist or speech and language therapist has assessed the individual.

Non-verbal communication is another area affected by SLCN. Most human communication is non-verbal, involving gestures, facial expressions, voice pitch, physical distance, touch, etc. In fact, it can be said that non-verbal behaviour is the most crucial aspect of communication. Most people with communication difficulties have poor non-verbal communication skills in addition to difficulty with communication through language.

If there is access to speech and language therapy services, their role will be to assess and diagnose the specific SLCN and provide the appropriate intervention. They will consider the needs of the user within the environment and train the wider workforce that interfaces with the user to maximise the effectiveness of the therapy.

A growing number of speech and language therapists work in youth offending teams, youth offending institutions, prisons and mental health hospitals. Read our case studies for real life examples of the work they do.