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Judge makes court instructions easier to understand for those with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

Posted Jun 4, 2014 6:00 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A judge in Barrow, Alaska, is trying to make courtroom proceedings easier to understand for defendants who suffer brain damage caused by their mothers’ drinking during pregnancy.

Judge Michael Jeffery speaks slowly and eliminates the legalese to help those with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the Alaska Dispatch reports, based on an interview with Jeffery and a 2010 article in The Journal of Psychiatry & Law.

People with FASD may find it difficult to remember instructions, the story says. They might be impulsive and easily swayed by more sophisticated criminals. They may have trouble understanding consequences, but they benefit from routine and structure.

Jeffery doesn’t know which defendants in his courtroom have the disorder, so he “gives everyone his user-friendly version of court” when time allows, and gives everyone simplified paperwork, the story says.

Jeffery uses a plain-language checklist for the rules that must be followed for those awaiting trial, such as, “I cannot drink any alcohol, including homebrew." He says some people with FASD don’t retain every word. Instead of saying “Don’t drink,” he says, “Stay sober.”

A law championed by Jeffery in 2012 allows judges to consider FASD in sentencing defendants, except in violent crimes committed. He hasn't used the law yet in a Barrow case. But Jeffery does like the idea of longer probation in place of long prison sentences, since structure can be helpful to those with FASD.

“To the judge's fans,” the story says, “including national FASD prevention experts, he is a pioneering force for a large but overlooked population of disabled. To some Barrow residents and some local police, he's known as ‘Minimum Mike.’ ”

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