Trouble with the Law

Trouble with the law is one of many possible adverse outcomes of FASD.

Developmental Considerations

Kids with FASD have been shown to be more likely to display delinquent behaviour, poor moral judgement and conduct problems (conduct disorder is an emotional and behavioural disorder of childhood involving inappropriate and antisocial behaviours) than their peers.

An over-representation of delinquent behaviour continues into adolescence and adulthood, with studies showing numbers as high as 60% of adolescents and adults with FASD having trouble with the law, and 35-50% of adults and adolescents with FASD having been confined or incarcerated for their offences. These findings are supported by the over-representation of individuals with FASD in the corrections system. In Canada, 10% of inmates are diagnosed with FASD. This is approximately 10 times greater than the incidence of FASD in the general population. A similar ratio has been found for youth with FASD that have been remanded for psychiatric inpatient assessment. Research on adults with FASD who have had trouble with the law has found that 1/3 of these adults committed their first crime between the ages of 9 and 14.

People with FASD are also at risk of being victims or witnesses of crimes. This is problematic because potential memory recall issues could look like lying in courts, resulting in negative consequences.

  • Stealing as a child may be due to a lack of understanding of the idea of ownership
  • People with FASD have difficulty with many mental functions (often "executive functions" and "adaptive functions") that might cause delinquent behaviour, such as:
    • Problem solving
    • Understanding and learning from consequences
    • Decision making
    • Planning and organization
    • Judgement
    • Social skills
    • Perspective taking/understanding emotions and feelings
  • People with FASD may show more:
  • Other identified risk factors are adolescent stress, drug/alcohol use, child verbal aggression, lower parental aggression, placement in biological home or foster home rather than adoptive care.

Our system punishes criminals with the assumption that offenders will learn from the consequences of their actions. Since individuals with FASD often lack the ability to learn from consequence and experience, repeat offences are likely to occur. With the right intervention, the conditions of parole may be less difficult for those with FASD to fulfill. For example, individuals in interventions for drug/alcohol problems, trouble in the workplace, difficulty understanding time, and poor judgement, will likely have a better chance of following parole conditions like no drug/alcohol use, maintaining a job, curfews, regular appointments with their parole officer, and strictly obeying the law.

To help ease the process of going through the court system with an individual with FASD, regardless of their role, here are some tips:

  • Inform all legal representatives that the individual has FASD and what this means for legal proceedings.
  • Ask that written testimony be accepted rather than questioning at the podium to avoid being overwhelmed.
  • Help the individual understand all the legal terms relating to their course.
  • Advocate for treatment and interventions rather than harsh punishments.
  • If incarceration is a must, suggest a local corrections facility so that they have access to supports


FASD and Practice: Issues for Probation Officers
Video webinar with handouts by Dr. Jacqueline Pei: Brief overview of FASD and brain functioning with practical strategies for probation officers working with individuals affected by FASD (from FASD CMC Alberta)

Internet Safety: Predicting the Youth
Video Webinar with handouts presented by Constable Michael Richards: Understanding different social sites and modes of communication youth are using and how to minimize victimization and cyber crime (from FASD CMC Alberta)

FASD and Practice: Issues for Correctional Peace Officers and Sheriffs
Video webinar with handouts presented by Grace Froese and Bob Steeves (Retired corrections officer and adoptive parent of a son with FASD): Reviews Bob Steeves' discovery of his son's diagnosis and how it affected his understanding of his son's and other offenders' interactions with the law (from FASD CMC Alberta)

FASD and Practice: Issues for Prosecutors
Video webinar with handouts presented by Neil Wieberg Q.C.: Provides a brief overview of mental health provisions of the Criminal Code with a discussion of how a diagnosis of FASD affects these provisions (from FASD CMC Alberta)

FASD and the Criminal Justice System: Issues for Defence
Video webinar with handouts presented by Patricia Yuzwenko: FASD basics and how they affect decision making within the criminal process and relavant case law. Discusses the unique issues of representing a client with FASD (from FASD CMC Alberta)

Forensic Assessments of Youth Affected by FASD
Video webinar with handouts presented by Dr. Ann Marie Dewhurst: Review of forensic assessments and how they can support youth with FASD.

FASD: What the Justice System Should Know
One page fact sheet from NOFAS with FASD information and suggestions for how the justice system can help those with FASD

Knowledge and Attitudes of Criminal Justice Professionals in Relation to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder
Research paper written by Lori Vitale Cox, Donald Clairmont, and Seamus Cox. Presents survey results of judges and crown prosecutors' knowledge and attitudes about FASD

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and the Role of Family Court Judges in Improving Outcomes for Children and Families
Paper by Diane Malbin supporting recognition and efficacy of services for people with FASD in the justice system.


FASD Pocket Card
Information from Waterloo Region FASD about pocket cards to be printed off and carried by individuals diagnosed with (or suspected of having) FASD to inform justice and medical professionals of the diagnosis and it's potential implications. Links are available for download and printing of police information cards and parent information cards.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder & Jusitce
Website developed by the the FASD Ontario Network of Expertise. Contains information and resources about FASD and how it relates to the criminal justice system