My experience of the criminal justice system and how it can be made better
*Names have been changed to protect identity
My name is John*. I have autism and I was the victim of a crime. This is my story and my ideas for how to make the system better for people with learning disabilities or autism.
I knew the person who committed a crime against me. Her name is Katie*. I knew her for a long time and trusted her because I thought she was a friend. Katie kept asking me for money and at first I gave her some, but then I started to say “no”. She tried to make me feel sorry for her so that I would keep giving her money, but I didn’t want to. She pestered me a lot and it made me really stressed. I told the police about it and they warned her to stop and for a while she did, but then she started coming round again. She was harassing me and I felt scared and unsafe in my own home.
Katie worked with someone else to take money from my contactless debit card, but she was caught and the police were involved again. She stayed away for a while again, but then one day, as I was walking home, she attacked me. She hit me on the head and pinned me down on the ground. She stole my money and let her dog bite me. She even pulled me into the road. I was terrified.
My autism means it can be hard to express how things make me feel, so when I reported the crime to West Yorkshire Police I talked about Katie’s actions but not about what impact it had on me. The police tried to be supportive and they were really calm but I don’t think they knew how to adjust the usual police procedures to a way that was sympathetic to my autism. I didn’t tell them that I thought the action was a hate crime and they didn’t ask. I didn’t get support from a hate crime coordinator. I didn’t tell the police that I couldn’t eat or that I was too scared to go out. I’ve since found out that I could have written down how I felt instead of trying to say it.
I gave a statement and the police read it back to me. They were very careful to make sure it was correct and they explained what would happen next. I was referred to the Witness Care Unit and they helped me to keep in touch with what was happening. The decision was made to take Katie to court and this made me even more worried than I had been about what she did to me. I didn’t want to go to court. I was scared of the court building and of being in a room that I didn’t recognise. I didn’t even want to go see the room so that I could get used to it before the trial. The police and the court appointed Intermediary said the room would be separate from the trial room and that I wouldn’t have to see Katie, but they didn’t understand that I was scared of the room itself, not just of Katie and what she did to me.
I didn’t tell the police or the Intermediary that they could have drawn a picture of the room or showed me photographs and that would have given me the confidence to be able to go check it out first. No one told me that I didn’t have to actually go to court and that I could give my evidence in a place that I felt safe. They just kept pushing for me to go to court and this made me really stressed. When we were only a couple of weeks before the court date, I asked for help from a charity where I regularly volunteer. We managed to persuade the police and Intermediary that for my own wellbeing I couldn’t give my evidence in court. By this point, I was continually anxious about the case and it was making me feel poorly. In the week before the court date, we made arrangements with the Crown Prosecution Service to let me have my video link direct from the offices of the charity.
On the day of the court hearing, I went to the office of the charity where I volunteer – a place I feel safe and where I know I have people around me who understand me and who can give me the support I need. In the end, I didn’t have to give my evidence using the video link that had been set up in the office. Katie pleaded guilty and my evidence and questioning wasn’t needed. I was so relieved that it was over, but I also wanted to make sure that other people in my situation get the right support. People with autism and learning disabilities shouldn’t have to cope with the stress of a system that doesn’t work for them whilst they are already trying to cope with being the victim of a crime.
I want to share the lessons learnt from my experiences and tell people that they can find a way through the justice system that works with their autism or disability. You just need to have the confidence to be able to say what you need – even if that means you have to write your feelings down. You need the people around you to listen to what you need and be prepared to think differently about how they can help you give your best evidence.
Although things didn’t work perfectly for me, I’m pleased that the police service are doing a lot to help police officers and civilian staff understand some of the challenges that people on the autistic spectrum can face. As well as helpful factsheets and documents, some police forces have provided face-to-face training.
West Yorkshire Police have recently held Autism Awareness sessions delivered by Specialist Autism Services (www.specialistautismservices.org.uk) and further training and working groups are planned to help police officers or civilian staff in specific areas of police work where they may meet someone with autism. Also, there is now the National Police Autism Association (www.npaa.org.uk) who support employees affected by Autism and related conditions and also share best practice for police forces working with members of public affected by Autism. More locally, there is the West Yorkshire Police Disabled Police Association who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you need help there are lots of organisations who can support you through the process, some of them are listed below.
Further help and information
National Probation Service – https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/national-probation-service
The Victim Contact Scheme – https://www.victimsinformationservice.org.uk/what-help-you-can-expect/joining-victim-contact-scheme/
National Offender Management Service – https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/national-offender-management-service
Victim Helpline – 0845 7585112
Victim Support – www.victimsupport.org.uk
National Victim Support Helpline – 0845 30 30 900
The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org/
Telephone – free from any phone dial 116 123
CHANGE – http://www.changepeople.org/
Telephone – 0113-242-6619
The National Autistic Society – http://www.autism.org.uk/professionals/others/criminal-justice.aspx