Prevalence and characteristics of adults with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in corrections: a Canadian case ascertainment study

BMC Public Health. 2019 Jan 9;19(1):43. doi: 10.1186/s12889-018-6292-x.


Background: Individuals with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) experience a range of cognitive, affective, and physical deficits following prenatal alcohol exposure. They are thought to be overrepresented in criminal justice settings. However, limited evidence is available to inform prevalence. We sought to estimate the prevalence of FASD in a Northern Canadian correctional population.

Methods: Using an active case ascertainment approach we recruited a representative sample of 80 justice-involved adults (ages 18-40, 85% male) over an 18-month period from 2013 to 2015. Participants completed interdisciplinary clinical assessments comprising medical and psychological evaluations that adhered to the 2005 Canadian FASD Diagnostic Guidelines.

Results: We identified a high rate of FASD (17.5, 95% CI [9.2, 25.8%]) in this sample, and this rate could have been as high as 31.2% with confirmation of prenatal alcohol exposure. Most participants in this study presented with significant neurodevelopmental and cognitive deficits in at least two domains of functioning, irrespective of diagnosis, with only five of 80 participants (6.3%) demonstrating no cognitive impairment.

Conclusions: Findings showed disproportionately high estimated FASD prevalence in this representative sample compared to general population estimates in both Canada and the U.S. (2-5%), underscoring the need for improved FASD screening and diagnosis in correctional settings, and education for clinicians working in the justice context. Strengthened health prevention and intervention efforts to support the needs of individuals with FASD outside the criminal justice context are needed.

Keywords: Correctional; Criminal justice; Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder; Prenatal alcohol exposure; Prevalence.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Canada / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Cognition Disorders / epidemiology
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology
  • Criminal Law*
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / epidemiology*
  • Prevalence
  • Prisoners / psychology
  • Prisons*
  • Young Adult

Grants and funding