According to statistics gathered from the 2011-2012 National Inmate Survey administered by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 40 percent of individuals in jail self-reported having at least one disability. Navigating jail with a disability can be complex, overwhelming, and costly. The impact of jailing a person with a disability also impacts their families and communities. The incarceration of one is essentially the incarceration of many.
In the United States, the use of jail to confine people with disabilities is closely aligned with efforts to place disabled people in asylums and institutions, similar to the criminalization of black people resulting in mass incarceration following the abolition of slavery. From the end of slavery to today, laws have been enacted to criminalize and devalue both people of color and disabled individuals. These laws further socially justify these populations’ incarceration and further fuel biases and fear towards these groups.
Efforts to reduce jail incarceration nationwide have resulted in a range of innovative strategies, such as reducing the use of cash bail and the way that prosecutors make decisions about charges. There is certainly a serious effort to shift how jails engage with people who need mental health supports, notably at Cook County Jail. However, despite the general prevalence of disability in jails, there remain a range of under-addressed opportunities to discuss how to further reduce the jail incarceration of people with disabilities overall. A number of disability advocates have been working for many years to bring what is essentially a cross-disability look to criminal justice and restorative justice work; we need to hear and build on these efforts.
Moreover, even as the National Inmate Survey showed high rates of self-reported disability status, it also showed that incarcerated people of color tended to underreport disability status. This poses a complex challenge to understanding the disability experience in different demographics who are impacted by police contact and jail incarceration. We feel this dynamic is of great note given current national work on reducing racial disparities in arrest trends and jail populations. This is especially important for Access Living, as the majority of people we serve directly are from black and brown neighborhoods in Chicago.
For this paper, we reviewed the different ways people with disabilities have contact with the criminal justice system. We took a look at existing work in the field. We interviewed impacted community members and people with disabilities who have been incarcerated. We asked what their policy recommendations would be for local officials and asked local criminal justice stakeholders what further information would be needed to provide accommodations and access to services for justice-involved people while also reducing the unnecessary over-incarceration of people with disabilities. We also pulled together, in this paper’s Background Section, a basic explanation for criminal justice professionals to better understand how to see disability from a cross-disability, social model perspective.
Through research and community dialogue, we were made aware of specific situations and patterns where people with disabilities would have benefited from community supports and diversion, rather than arrest and jail incarceration. We identified areas in the realm of current criminal justice practice and community supports where disability has been hidden, unaddressed, or inadequately understood.
We discovered these reoccurring themes for policymakers to consider when revamping law, policy, and practice to ultimately reduce mass incarceration and justice system involvement of people with disabilities.
Summary of Policy Recommendations:
- Increase storytelling and advocacy opportunities for people with disabilities who have had contact with the criminal justice system.
- Convene cross-disability policy committees at the local and national levels that include decision makers and impacted community members, with the goal of reducing incarceration.
- Establish and enforce clear cross-disability accommodation policies and protocols covering all areas where people interact with the criminal justice system.
- Train front-line professionals and criminal justice agency staff on a cross-disability framework to be able to identify and support people with disabilities who are in jail or at risk of incarceration.
- Enhance the transparency of disability policy and disability data to open opportunities for substantial lasting change to the continued reduction of the number of people with disabilities in jail.
- Within the criminal justice system, implement internal employee Americans with Disabilities (ADA) accommodation guidance and training.
- Provide meaningful alternatives to a police response when someone is in crisis to deflect/divert people with disabilities who do not pose a public safety concern into non-restrictive supportive environments.
- Invest in housing options that are both affordable and accessible for people with a range of disabilities and to people who have a criminal history.
Most importantly, over the course of our year in looking deeply at this area of our community, we learned that the effort to reduce jail incarceration of people with disabilities demands substantial additional work – research, analysis, review of policy and practices plus evaluation and continued public dialogue. We look forward to furthering this work with local and national community members.