Intellectual Disability in the Queensland Criminal Justice System: Thematic Analysis of Supreme and District Court Sentencing Remarks

Mr Calum Henderson1, Professor Melissa Bull1

1School of Justice and QUT Centre for Justice, Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice, Queensland University Of Technology (QUT), Brisbane, Australia

People with an intellectual disability (PWID) are overrepresented in the Criminal Justice System (CJS). Despite definitional difficulties and inconsistent research design in prevalence studies, available evidence suggests that between 25%-30% of people in Australian prisons suffer from borderline intellectual disability and 10% from a mild intellectual disability. This contrasts with only 6.5% of Australians with a disability in the general population reporting their primary form of disability as intellectual or developmental. PWID experience a particular vulnerability to multiple forms of harm and disadvantage which result in them coming into contact with the CJS earlier and with greater frequency than the general population. The eleventh public hearing of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability found that, while PWID are overrepresented at all stages of the CJS, there is a lack of useable data detailing the involvement of people with a disability throughout the CJS. This is matched by a gap in research relating specifically to PWID in the CJS. This paper reports on a project that investigated 1) the nature and characteristics of people who have an intellectual disability who appear before Queensland courts as defendants; and 2) the factors that influence judicial decision-making during the sentencing of people who have an intellectual disability in Queensland courts. The researchers conducted an inductive thematic analysis of 34 sentencing remarks transcripts from Queensland’s Supreme and District courts. Preliminary findings indicate that PWID who come before these superior courts as defendants commonly have been victims of crime themselves and exhibit complex patterns of offending behaviour. Comorbid conditions and disorders, relevant criminal history, severity of offending, and potential for engagement with support and rehabilitative services were factors that influenced judicial sentencing decisions.


Calum Henderson is an Honours student in the School of Justice at QUT. He recently graduated from a Double Degree with a Bachelor of Justice (Criminology and Policing) and a Bachelor of Behavioural Science (Psychology) at QUT. He currently works as a sessional academic in the School of Justice at QUT and is a Research Assistant on a project concerned with the spatial dimensions of policing and its relationship to legitimacy in Pacific Island countries.


Dec 09 2021