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Criminal Justice

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders have a large impact on the criminal justice system for youths and adults. Cognitive deficits in abstract thinking, not understanding the link between actions and consequences, poor judgment and impulsivity, as well as social thinking deficits, leave people with FASD uniquely vulnerable to contact with the law.  60% of affected people will have difficulty with the law. 

  • 17 to 36% of inmates in the juvenile justice system have an FASD

  • 35% of adults with FASD will be incarcerated

  • In Alaska, state law stipulates that FASD be considered as a mitigating factor in

  • In 2012, the American Bar Association issued a resolution highlighting the importance of FASD and urging all attorneys and judges to obtain training in the disability This is not happening in California. 

Youth and adults with FASD are at risk for involvement with the law due to social and cognitive deficits of their disability.  When children become young adults and gain independence, caregivers have less control over their environment.  People with FASD may get into trouble with the law due to:


  • Impulsivity, in the form of shoplifting

  • Stealing due to a lack of understanding of personal ownership

  • Fighting as a result of an overreaction or meltdown

  • Behavior motivated by fear, such as running from the police or responding violently when overwhelmed

  • Becoming an accomplice when a primary criminal manipulates an individual with FASD into committing a crime

When FASD meets the LAW...

The police are not likely to be FASD informed.  


An ID card can assist someone with an FASD if arrested.  

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  • Follow the instructions of the police calmly

  • Do not answer questions

  • Give them your card

  • Ask for a lawyer

  • Tell the police you cannot be alone and need your parent or advocate



Caregivers:  Have this conversation more than once and role-play what to do.

Explaining legal rights simply

FASD ID Card for the  Police

A person with FASD who is arrested will likely face challenges in the legal system due to his or her disability. Problems that occur may include:


  • Difficulty remembering what happened due to impaired memory and confabulation (filling in the blanks with information that did not happen)

  • Difficulty understanding the language of their attorney, judge, and prosecutor

  • Easily misled by prosecutor questions

  • Getting upset in court

  • Not understanding his/her legal rights in court

  • Court not understanding the disability and how it affects your loved one’s actions and ability to form criminal intent and contribute to his or her defense.  All parties in the legal system should be made aware of FASD

  • Once incarcerated, the person with FASD can be easily victimized

  • Upon release, the person with FASD is at risk for remand, as he or she may not understand the terms of probation and will likely need increased support and supervision.  Modified terms of probation may be needed.

Challenges you may face

It is critical that your attorney or public defender be informed about FASD.  Please refer them to the professional pages of this website for more information.  


NOFAS Northern California is working to improve the knowledge around FASD in Northern California's criminal justice system through our advocacy efforts and training.  We are hopeful that we will have a list of informed professionals soon.


Please contact us for potential resources.

What legal counsel needs to know

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