WSU Vancouver professor’s book examines how autism research can improve juvenile justice policies in the U.S. and Canada

VANCOUVER, Wash. – Washington State University Vancouver Associate Professor of Criminal Justice Laurie A. Drapela has co-authored “Law and Neurodiversity: Youth with Autism and the Juvenile Justice Systems in Canada and the United States.” (University of British Columbia Press, June 2020) with Dana Lee Baker and Whitney Littlefield. The book offers guidance on how autism research can inform and improve juvenile justice policies in Canada and the United States. Both countries rely on decentralized systems of governance to craft and implement law and policy, but their treatment of detained youth with autism differs substantively.

Autism prevalence increased over the last three decades, yet this neurological difference remains incompletely understood among juvenile justice practitioners – particularly juvenile court judges and juvenile probation officers. Youths express autism in myriad ways, further challenging practitioners’ abilities to recognize autism and incorporate neurodiverse approaches to reducing justice involvement. Some of these stakeholders may also perceive autism as predominant among young white males, missing opportunities to positively engage autistic youth of color, gender diversity and poverty in desistance from criminal behavior.

Given these obstacles, how can juvenile justice systems fully incorporate neurodiversity to successfully reintegrate youth with autism back into their communities? State and local agencies such as juvenile courts often refer to other jurisdictions when seeking effective problem-solving strategies to avoid “reinventing the wheel.” Drawing on common language, federated systems of government and histories with England, the authors compared Canada’s understandings of autism and integration into juvenile justice practice with those of the U.S. 

Both countries exhibit strengths in working with autistic youth, brought about by federal legislation, grass-roots social movements, and in the case of Canada, implementing disability rights declarations from the United Nations. Despite these advances, Canadian provinces and U.S. States experimented with 20th century ‘get tough’ juvenile justice policies disproportionately negatively affecting autistic youth (especially autistic youth of color). In the 21st century, Canada moved toward decarceration and community justice models for all youth, while the U.S. continues harsh tactics such as juvenile detention, school-to-prison pipelines and zero-tolerance delinquency policies. The authors propose enhancing restorative justice and community justice by integrating youth with autism and their families into the legal, social and educational fabric of juvenile justice systems of both countries.

About Laurie Drapela

Laurie Drapela’s research interests include the implementation and operation of therapeutic courts, offending desistance trajectories among youth, and the intersections of mental health, behavioral health and criminal justice. Her manuscripts have appeared in Justice Quarterly, Crime & Delinquency, The Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Deviant Behavior, Youth & Society and The Social Science Journal. Drapela earned a bachelor’s degree, Plan II Honors Program; and her master’s degree and Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin.

About WSU Vancouver

As one of six campuses of the WSU system, WSU Vancouver offers big-school resources in a small-school environment. The university provides affordable, high-quality baccalaureate- and graduate-level education to benefit the people and communities it serves. As the only four-year research university in Southwest Washington, WSU Vancouver helps drive economic growth through relationships with local businesses and industries, schools and nonprofit organizations. 

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