Overcriminalization of People with Disabilities Must Be Addressed in Criminal Justice Reform

A prisoner in a wheelchair goes through a door

An inmate in a wheelchair goes through a check point at the California Medical Facility, in Vacaville, California, on April 9, 2008. Source: AP/Rich Pedroncelli

Washington, D.C. —(ENEWSPF)–July 18, 2016.   As bipartisan momentum around criminal justice reform continues to grow in Congress and across the United States, at least one group has been largely absent from the conversation, despite being dramatically over-represented in the nation’s prisons and jails today: Americans with disabilities.

Today, the Center for American Progress released a report that puts disability issues in perspective within the current criminal justice reform landscape, highlighting specific steps policymakers can take to combat inappropriate and unjust incarceration and criminalization of people with disabilities, as well as steps to ensure appropriate and humane treatment of people with disabilities throughout the justice system, from police practices to courts, conditions in jails and prisons, and reentry. Rebecca Vallas, Managing Director of the Poverty to Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress and author of the report, will be discussing this report today at a White House Forum focusing on this very topic. Click here to watch the livestream starting at 1:30pm EST.

“Following a long history of disinvestment in community-based care for mental health and disability, the United States has traded one form of mass institutionalization for another, with jails and prisons now serving as social service providers of last resort,” said Vallas. “Ending the mass incarceration of people with disabilities will require meaningful investment in the nation’s social service and mental health treatment infrastructure to ensure availability and funding for community-based alternatives, so that jails and prisons are no longer forced to serve as social service providers of last resort. But bringing about this change will also require including disability as a key part of the bipartisan conversation on criminal justice reform taking place in Congress, as well as in states and cities across the United States.”

This year marks the 17th year since the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Olmstead v. LC that unjustified segregation of people with disabilities in institutional settings is unlawful discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, which celebrates its 26th anniversary on July 25th. Yet while bipartisan momentum around criminal justice reform continues to grow in Washington and in states and cities across the United States—and in the wake of the past week’s horrific events and the again-renewed urgency around the need for police reform—the intersection of criminal justice and disability is all too rarely discussed.

These are some of the themes explored in CAP’s new report:

  • People with disabilities are dramatically over-represented in the nation’s prisons and jails. Individuals behind bars in state and federal prisons are nearly three times as likely, and those behind bars in jails are more than four times as likely to report having a disability than the general population. Fully half of women in jail have a disability.
  • In addition to facing disproportionate rates of incarceration, people with disabilities are also especially likely to be the victims of police violence. Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Kristiana Coignard, and Robert Ethan Saylor are but four high-profile examples of a widespread, commonplace experience. While data on police shootings are notably limited, research estimates that people with disabilities comprise between one-third and one-half of all individuals killed by law enforcement. 
  • While behind bars, people with disabilities are often deprived of necessary medical care, as well as needed supports, services, and accommodations, in violation of federal disability rights law. Many inmates with disabilities are held in solitary confinement, often reportedly for their own protection, as a substitute for appropriate accommodations. People with disabilities are also at special risk of brutality at the hands of correctional officers, as well as violence by their fellow inmates.

Click here to read the full report.