Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) s a condition that can affect people their entire lives in a range of severity. FAS is caused by the mother consuming alcohol during pregnancy, often resulting in restricted growth, including growth of brain synapses. While the effects can vary case-by-case unfortunately the condition is not reversible. FAS can present itself in many ways, including physical birth defects, social and coping problems, and cognitive disabilities. 

Some experts in the field of FAS studies think that as high as 75 percent of the U.S. prison population suffers from some degree of the condition. But before we discuss that, let’s examine how FAS affects the body and mind. 

Physical symptoms

Common physical defects noted in a baby with FAS include:

  • Very distinctive facial features such as an extremely thin upper lip, an upturned nose, small eyes, and a smooth surface of skin between the nose and upper lip
  • Deformation of the limbs, fingers, and joints 
  • Slow uterine growth and slow growth after birth
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Small brain size and head circumference
  • Problems with the bones, kidneys, or heart

Central nervous system and brain problems

Children with FAS can also suffer from problems with the central nervous system and brain function including:

  • Poor balance and coordination
  • Learning disorders, intellectual disability, and developmental delays
  • Trouble with remembering and processing information as well as problems paying attention 
  • Lessened reasoning and problem-solving skills
  • Poor judgment and the incapacity to fully understand the consequences of their actions 
  • Hyperactivity and rapid changes in mood

Behavior and social issues

One of the most commonly shown symptoms of someone with fetal alcohol syndrome are social and behavioral issues. These can include:

  • Problems at school
  • The inability to get along with others
  • A lack of social skills
  • Difficulty adapting to change or even switching tasks 
  • Behavior problems linked to poor impulse control
  • Difficulty working on and focusing on a goal

Criminal behavior in adolescents and adults with FAS

There has been a strong link between FAS and actions that can lead to criminal problems. It is estimated that a large portion of young offenders that appear in court have mothers who consumed alcohol during pregnancy. The criminal justice system is based on the fact that one understands societal rules and know what they are engaged in going violates those rules. The question becomes, can someone suffering from FAS which causes poor judgment, poor impulse control, problems with effective reasoning, and difficulty understanding the consequences of their behavior be tried in the same way as someone who can easily determine what is right and wrong and makes a conscious decision to go against those rules? 

Very rarely is it determined that this behavior comes from malicious intent and instead is a result of control problems and a misunderstanding of social normals and processes. The irony of the whole issue is that when put into the criminal justice system, many of these young offenders suffering from FAS turn out to be model prisoners. This is often attributed to the fact that they are receiving the treatment that they need, and they are also in a structured environment. Unfortunately, once released, if their outside environment does not change, their behavior is likely to revert back, and they will often find themselves back in the court system again. From a legal standpoint, courts need to determine if:

  • A juvenile afflicted with FAS should ever be allowed to be tried as an adult?
  • FAS shuold be a mitigating factor in sentencing, similar to other mental health issues? Studies have shown that there is a high rate of secondary mental illness in those for have been diagnosed with FAS. 

Fetal alcohol syndrome can affect children throughout their lives, leading to problems with behavior and control that can result in criminal consequences. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with FAS and has been charged with a crime, seeking the right legal counsel is critical to ensure that the court is made aware of the condition and how it can lead to the behavior that was alleged to have occurred.