Report finds relationship of criminal justice system to disabilities a serious problem

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By Cynthia Price
Legal News

The organization RespectAbility has released a report suggesting that officials ignore the large numbers of incarcerated people with disabilities at their own peril.

How serious is the problem? Though the authors acknowledge it is not easy to determine exact numbers, they estimate that there are more than 750,000 people struggling with some form of disability currently in jail and prison.

RespectAbility’s website, respectabilityusa.com, says the nonprofit “is on the front lines in the battle to reduce stigmas, failed government policies, and other obstacles that deny people with disabilities the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.”

In addition to focusing on campaigns and educational efforts to achieve these and related goals, the organization takes a deeper dive into issues it deems critical. The issue of incarceration rates involving people with disabilities is among them, so the group released “Disability and Criminal Justice Reform: The Key Issues” in late June.

The Washington D.C. release presented three of the report authors:

• Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the CEO and president of RespectAbility who has struggled with dyslexia and raising a child with multiple disabilities herself, has been a spokesperson for a national political party and advocate for and researcher on issues faced by people with disabilities among others;

• Eddie B. Ellis, Jr., a re-entry advocate/consultant, trainer, mentor and motivational speaker and founder/CEO of Oneby1, which works to provide youth development workshops and mentoring services to keep youth out of the corrections system and help those exiting the system stay out, is currently Criminal Justice Associate at RespectAbility; and

• Janie L. Jeffers of Jeffers and Associates, also served as Executive Deputy Director for the Federal DC Interagency Task Force at the White House Office of Management and Budget, Chief of the National Office of Citizen Participation for the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the Department of Justice from 1992-1996, and Deputy Commissioner for the New York City Department of Correction from 1985-1991, the first civilian to achieve that position.

Another co-author is Philip Pauli, RespectAbility’s Policy and Practices Director, while David M. Perry, Ph.D., gave editorial assistance, and Nathan Shearer and Max Spain provided research assistance.

In the Washington D.C. press conference heralding the release of the report, Mizrahi noted that it was difficult to get real numbers on how many incarcerated people have disabilities — indeed, the report says early on, “One of the most important ways that any reform measures could add the lens of disability would be to improve the available data on the size and scope of how many... have disabilities.”

But using Bureau of Justice Statistics that indicate 32 percent of federal prisoners and 40 percent of people in jail have at least one disability, the authors settled on the number 750,000 people out of more than 2,200,000 incarcerated in the U.S. (This compares with about 19 percent of the population at large.)

That would translate in Michigan, where there are 43,000 incarcerated, to about 15,000.

While the numbers break down to more than 500,000 with cognitive disabilities, many have multiple disabilities, and there are approximately 150,000 each with vision and hearing impairments, and over 200,000 with mobility challenges.

Not only does all this pose a challenge in bringing justice and fair treatment to inmates with disabilities, it also stretches the material and human resources needed to manage prison populations.

The report finds that people with disabilities are at higher risk of entering the juvenile justice system due to, for example, much lower high school graduation rates and higher incidence of abuse victimization; people with disabilities in the justice system face daunting challenges including access to counsel, a lack of accommodations, complex rules, systematic abuse and solitary confinement; and returning citizens are in need of more support to avoid recidivism.

The authors have a great number of recommendations to improve the situation, which cover the full range from pre-prison to re-entry.

Among the suggestions intended to address reducing the rate at which people with disabilities are caught up in the criminal justice system are reducing the stigma around disabilities in an intentional and concentrated way; eliminating circumstances where physical and sexual abuse of those with disabilities are a possibility; reconsidering the use of suspensions and restraints in the school system;
decriminalizing homelessness and taking people with mental health disabilities and addictions off the streets; and reforming policing practices and use-of-force policies. “In 2015, more than a third of people killed by police had disabilities,” the report states.

Probably the most critical recommendation regarding those already incarcerated is to “Put a process in place inside the corrections system to diagnose and accommodate people with a range of disabilities...” Others include expanding alternative sentencing and improving the resources of the juvenile justice system, noting that people with cognitive disabilities may need more help in understanding what is required of them for compliance.

Finally, there are several recommendations for programs to ease the transition once people with disabilities are released. Such measures as providing training in necessary skills and expanding employment opportunities are recommended.. Recognizing that the criminal justice system is finally beginning to address its disproportionate impact on people who are part of racial and ethnic minorities, the authors state that reforms should take into consideration the intersection of those factors with disabilities, citing the case of Freddie Gray, who had a developmental disability. The authors conclude, “We hope [this report] will help policy makers add the disability lens to our nation’s conversation about criminal justice reform.”

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