FASD and the Justice System

What is FASD?

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is the umbrella term used to describe the range of impairments and disabilities caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. People with FASD always have permanent brain injuries. Other impairments can include:

  1.  problems with vision and hearing
  2. bones, limbs and fingers that are not properly formed
  3. damage to the heart, kidneys, liver, and other organs
  4. slower growth than average 

 Read more information about the range of health and cognitive issues [LINK TO “Science and Diagnosis of FASD page] 

What are the challenges of FASD for the justice system?

FASD presents many difficult challenges across the judicial system, from arrest through to corrections and parole processes. This website provides information for lawyers, judges, youth and community workers, police, and correctional services staff to help them better address these challenges and improve justice system outcomes for people with FASD.

This site also provides information on how to identify possible undiagnosed FASD, and strategies to work with people with FASD. We also compile research and information on Canadian caselaw involving people with FASD.

How many people involved in the justice system in Canada have FASD?

Prevalence of FASD in correctional systems overall in Canada is not known. But research on prevalence of FASD in the justice system overall suggests that FASD is significantly underdiagnosed.   

In one Canadian study of adult inmates, 10% of the participants were diagnosed with FASD – and a diagnosis of FASD could not be ruled out with another 15% of the participants.

Prevalence of FASD in the youth correctional system is also high, although there are fluctuations in the data depending upon the method of study used and the availability of screening protocols. Four Canadian studies cited in a 2018 Australian study estimated prevalence of FASD amongst youth in custody as follows:

  1. 10.9 percent (Fast DK, Conry J, Loock CA. Identifying fetal alcohol syndrome among youth in the criminal justice system. J Dev Behav Pediatr 1999;20:370–2.)
  2. 11.7 percent (Murphy A, Chittenden M. Time out II: a profile of BC youth in custody. Vancouver, BC: The McCreary Centre Society, 2005.)
  3. 21 percent (Rojas EY, Gretton HM, Background GHM. Background, offence characteristics, and criminal outcomes of Aboriginal youth who sexually offend: a closer look at Aboriginal youth intervention needs. Sex Abuse 2007;19:257–83.)
  4. 23.3 percent (Smith A, Cox K, Poon C, et al. Time out III: a profile of BC youth in custody. Vancouver, BC: McCreary Centre Society, 2013.)

Indigenous people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and FASD may be especially prevalent in the Indigenous populations of incarcerated people. Anecdotal evidence suggests that up to 50 percent of Indigenous people who have been incarcerated have FASD. 

What are the costs linked to FASD?

FASD carries very high costs for the affected individual, the family, the justice system, and overall society.

One study based on data collected in 2014 estimated the overall costs of FASD within the Canadian criminal justice system at $3.9 billion per year, broken down as follows:

  • $1.2 billion for policing costs;
  • $0.5 billion for correctional services;
  • $1.6 billion related to issues faced by victims (for example, increased health care costs, productivity costs for victims and third parties who accompany them to court, and money paid to victims through government victim compensation schemes); and
  • $0.2 billion for third-party costs (for example, costs to replace stolen items and other costs associated with crime).