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Justice System Struggles with Cases Involving FASD

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Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) sometimes manifests itself as an inability to understand the consequences of one's actions, a fact that has U.S. courts struggling to reconcile the medical science with justice in a number of criminal cases, the Chicago Tribune reported May 9.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University recently reported that 60 percent of Americans with FASD have had involvement with the criminal-justice system, and that the diagnosis is common among prison inmates.

However, judges, prosecutors and corrections officials know little about the disease. Few states screen offenders for FASD, and those who break the law or rules are typically seen as intransigent, not victims of their disease. People with FASD can have normal intelligence but are immature and highly open to suggestion, experts say — a mix that may make them seem more responsible for their actions than they really are.

“Unless we do a better job of educating court professionals … and modify our strategies, this population is always going to fail,” said Kathryn Kelly of the ASD Legal Issues Resource Center.


Minnesota is the only state in the U.S. with a group home for those with FASD, and an effort is underway in the state to tailor sentences more appropriately to offenders with FASD. “We can do better,” said Susan Carlson, a retired Hennepin County juvenile-justice officer. “It's not only more humane … it's a lot more cost-effective. I have yet to see a prison that can take someone with this disability and turn them into a productive citizen.”

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