Finding a Solution - Access to Justice


Finding a Solution: Our Recommendations

In looking to the way forward in reducing jail incarceration of people with disabilities, we first want to acknowledge the hard work of the many disability advocates who have worked to bring attention to solutions for change. Their work was acknowledged in our conversations with local and national stakeholders and impacted persons.

Based on these conversations and interviews, we prioritized eight specific avenues to reducing jail incarceration for people with disabilities from a cross-disability standpoint. While they are certainly not the sum total of all possible solutions, we feel they are the most critical based from what we have learned to date from our work. We are committed to ongoing discussions with our local and national communities to achieve progress towards meaningful change.

These recommendations are driven directly by the voices of impacted community members, criminal justice stakeholders, community-based advocates, organizers, activist groups and other civic leaders dedicated to strengthening communities, safely reducing inappropriate interactions with the police and contributing to reducing the number of people currently incarcerated in Cook County Jail and nationally. To jump to a specific recommendation, select a link from the list below.

Recommendation 1:

Increase storytelling and advocacy opportunities for people with disabilities who have had contact with the criminal justice system.

“I do not want my voice silenced. I want my voice heard. … To have a disability and have it not be acknowledged is like not acknowledging a very important part of my identity.”

Chris Huff, Impacted Community Member

“I have no problem with my disability, and I want everyone to know that.”

Efferson Williams, Impacted Community Member

Again and again, we encountered justice-involved persons with disabilities who made it clear that they do not feel seen for the totality of who they are, especially as persons with disabilities. We also know from long experience in our disability advocacy that the media is a significant tool for driving systems change, and stories are deeply necessary, particularly stories of black and brown disabled people who have had contact with the criminal justice system.

In reviewing existing media reports and literature and in direct interviews, the voices of the people with disabilities most impacted by the criminal justice system are frequently left out of the conversation and mischaracterized by media. This was affirmed by those we interviewed. It is critical to interrupt this kind of storytelling.

By elevating and humanizing people with disabilities from all walks of life and their interactions with the criminal justice system, we can create a more complete picture of how persons with disabilities may be unnecessarily incarcerated. Moreover, we can get a stronger sense of how incarceration affects individuals’ families and communities.

Like other disability advocates before us, we see that the media and society also tend to not only stigmatize disability generally, but also specifically segregate disability types. For example, people with mental health disabilities are portrayed as “crazy” and “dangerous,” while people with physical disabilities are portrayed as “helpless” and “incapable.” These labels perpetuate stigmatization and discrimination. In particular, the media tends to contribute to a view of mental health and neurodivergent disability behaviors as criminal.

There are a range of criminal justice reform efforts specifically highlighted in the media, but the disability impact or profile for those efforts is low even though the impact on persons with disabilities is high. Locally in Cook County, cash bail reform has been much in the news, driven by the excellent work of the Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF). The CCBF operates a revolving bail fund, paying bail money to get people in Cook County Jail released. In the past three years it has paid more than $1 million in bond and released more than 200 people, with some great media coverage about its work.

The CCBF is also a great disability ally. Both Sharlyn Grace and Ruby Pinto of CCBF noted in interviews with us that in their observation, jail is not the appropriate place for people with disabilities. “Anyone with extra needs is at an increased disadvantage in terms of their ability to comply with what the ’system’ itself expects,” they told us. Rebecca Vallas at the Center for American Progress noted that 70 percent of people with disabilities would not be able to come up with an estimated $2,000 for a sudden, unplanned expense, compared to 35 percent of non-disabled people.[51] Cash bail is essentially a serious disability problem.

The public absolutely needs to hear from people with disabilities about cash bail reform. When a person with a disability is unable to make bail, he or she is at risk because jail staff may not make disability accommodations; as well, necessary community supports to survive may be lost while the person is detained. The person also may be refraining from asking for disability supports or hiding their disability in order to survive in the jail environment. Without appropriate supports, harm may occur to accused people being held pretrial, who are unable to pay for their release to obtain the disability supports they need to survive.

Health benefits represent another opportunity for highlighting disability voices in criminal justice reform. Alan Mills, executive director and attorney with Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, can attest to the large number of incarcerated individuals who lose Medicaid benefits after 30 days or more in jail. For those who have Medicare Part B, coverage does not continue during incarceration if the monthly premiums are not paid. Mills notes that “progressive policy actions should not be considered second chances for disabled justice involved populations, as many were never properly given a first chance.”

We recommend greater investment in sharing the stories of impacted individuals and families across disability types through mainstream media outlets, podcasts and documentaries. We are encouraged by incredible storytelling such as the “We Are Witnesses” series by the Marshall Project and the “70 Million” podcast, both of which have stories that look at disability. But we need to see many more. Specifically, we recommend learning from individual and family experiences with an eye on disability accommodations and a focus on the social model of disability theory. To engage disability advocates, it is vital these stories are produced in accessible formats, including captioning, audio description and versions in plain language or Easy Read.

Recommendation 2:

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.

“There are certain things that people shouldn’t be subjected to, but unfortunately, we are, and in those events, you have a choice that neither option can result in a great outcome, but you must choose to try to achieve your objective or goal to get in a better situation so then you can access greater choices.”

Lisha Fields, Impacted Community Member

Creating better choices through cross-disability informed policy-making is a matter of life or death for people with disabilities who are impacted by the criminal justice system. But for authenticity, that policy-making needs to be collaborative.

Based on our conversations about this project locally, we believe there is a will to change and to collaborate. Commissioner Karen Tamley of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities in Chicago said, “If we can do more to bring attention to this issue of how disability overlays the number of people incarcerated, we might be able to make greater changes in the disability community for all people.” Tamley and other disability advocates said they feel strongly that addressing community disability barriers is essential to also addressing jail incarceration of people with disabilities.

The school-to-prison pipeline is one important area rampant with disability barriers. Candace Coleman, racial justice organizer at Access Living, stressed the importance of addressing and closing the school-to-prison pipeline for disabled youth of color in Chicago. According to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, an organization dedicated to the improvement of justice systems, one-third of young adults and one in two of all black men in the United States have an arrest record by the age of 23.[52] Many also have disabilities, often but not always identified by the school system itself. Coleman views the central issue for jail reduction as “the lack of accommodations within schools and particularly those in communities of color. … Students with disabilities are being funneled into the system at higher rates than non-disabled students, most of them black males.”

Coleman and her cross-disability advocacy group, Advance Youth Leadership Power (AYLP), worked on an anti-bullying campaign to address the root cause of why so many young black men with disabilities were being expelled because of non-conforming behaviors. They discovered that students with disabilities were not being given proper accommodations. If students were behaving as their “natural self,” this led to disciplinary action, resulting in calls to police and subsequent arrest in some cases. Arrest is not a disability accommodation. For these reasons, including educational policymakers at the table is imperative.

We would like to further emphasize that partners for meaningful policy change include both disability organizations and non-disability focused organizations. An excellent example of this is the aforementioned Vera Institute of Justice, which highlighted the importance of accessible victim services in relation to the requirements of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).[53]

The goal of creating cross-disability policy committees to reduce unnecessary justice system involvement of people with disabilities should be to aim for a diverse set of partners, even unexpected ones.

We should highlight that both locally and nationally there is a significant effort dedicated to addressing the needs of people with mental health issues. At the forefront are groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and a range of providers of mental health services. These groups are also heavily involved in policy-making for criminal justice reform. However, we would urge that such groups collaborate with others who represent different types of disabilities to ensure that a real cross-disability view is brought to bear on reform. In reality, many people have more than one disability.

It is our view that criminal justice and community entities will benefit from a cross-disability perspective to identify opportunities for innovation and alternatives to compliance-based polices, and it is essential to make a start. Forming cross-agency committees that include impacted persons can provide a space to start robust discussions and create new policies.

Strategies should involve:

  1. Narrowing the definition of what rises to a public safety concern
  2. Creating policy and practice to identify people with disabilities
  3. Creating policy and practice to fully accommodate people with disabilities
  4. Evaluating practice and protocol for non-person crimes
  5. Relying upon the Olmstead Supreme Court decision to drive investment in more robust community services as alternatives to incarceration

Recommendation 3:

Establish and enforce clear cross-disability accommodation policies and protocols covering all areas where people interact with the criminal justice system.

“If you got out of line, they would have dragged you out of that [wheel]chair. Which I saw one or two guys getting dragged out of their chair or off their cane or off their walker.”

John Atlas, Impacted Community Member

“I say this a lot, whenever the human element is removed from any relationship or the equation: you’re never going to be able to accomplish the greater good, and that’s what’s happening. It’s all mechanics.”

Ray Robinson, Impacted Community Member

Representatives of the nonprofit organizations and criminal justice entities we talked to reported generally there are not clear cross-disability accommodation policies either for the public or persons who are incarcerated. Jail settings, and related law enforcement agencies and offices, often had policies that were inclusive for some disability types but not all. Unsurprisingly, those who serve as legal advocates for people with disabilities in jails had a lot to say about this.

Prominent San Francisco attorney Michael Bien represents a large portion of people with disabilities who are in jails and prisons in California and throughout the country. He told us that in his experience, criminal justice systems rarely meet the needs of people with disabilities.

  • Bien mapped out several reasons for this:
  • Most encounters with police are unplanned and providing accommodations is not usually rapidly available because such accommodations require planning.
  • People with disabilities may not self-identify due to fear, stigma or denial.
  • Many encounters with the criminal justice system require a high level of English literacy and comprehension (to hear, for example, explanation of rights to a hearing, getting an attorney, rules and procedures of a prison or jail, forms to request medical care and more).
  • Criminal justice systems have difficulty identifying and tracking people with disabilities.
  • Numerous barriers exist. These include stairs, cells without grab bars and inability to assist people with disabilities in reading and filling out forms required to get access to programs and services.

The population of people with serious mental illness is higher in jails and prisons than in the general population, Bien added. Predictably, these individuals encounter disability-related difficulties with the official rules of incarceration and this results in increased disciplinary violations with both staff and other incarcerated people.

Without disability accommodations, a confined person’s confrontation with environmental barriers can be harmful or deadly. Per Rebecca Vallas, though reasonable accommodations for disability are required by the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the U.S. Constitution, these accommodations are frequently substandard or not provided at all in jails.[54] Many people with disabilities live within a complex web of disability supports, and jail resources are typically inadequate to provide these supports.[55] It is a matter of record that when accommodations are not provided to people with disabilities, they often suffer injury and, in some cases, death.[56]

These incidents can occur either through use of force, substance withdrawal or other unmet medical needs. Diane O’Connell, an attorney with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, represents people experiencing homelessness in criminal cases in Cook County. She also facilitates the “Housing Path” court, a deferred prosecution program for people experiencing homelessness. O’Connell reports that almost 50 percent of her clients have a disability. One, who was addicted to heroin and arrested for possession, died in Cook County Jail of cardiac arrest related to withdrawal symptoms. Tragically, this is not an uncommon occurrence. Recently, a federal appeals court ruled that a rural Maine jail should have provided substance abuse treatment as a disability accommodation.[57]

At a minimum, a clear definition of disability, based on the ADA’s definition, should be a baseline in every criminal justice agency’s policies and procedures. A clear definition, and a clear understanding of that definition by staff, would ensure that people with disabilities are more readily identified across the areas of contact with criminal justice systems, with an emphasis on 911 services, law enforcement and jail staff during processing points. It is important for people to have the chance to self-identify that they have a disability both demographically and for accommodations.

Accommodation policies should be established and in practice at key contact points, including calls for emergency or non-emergency services, law enforcement interaction, in court and during attorney meetings, and at jail entrance, internal movements and release.

We should note that accessibility policies and accountability also need to be consistently in place for probation and re-entry programs. For example, NAMI Chicago provides some support to the Cook County Jail for people with disabilities by linking them to information, including access to over 700 referral sources in the Chicago area. However, impacted community members we interviewed reported not feeling plugged into accessible community services upon their release. According to these accounts, there appears to be a disconnect between the jail, impacted community members and service-providers. We recommend that providers and those involved with programs for diversion and release/probation should be accountable for knowing and providing disability access support.

Recommendation 4:

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.

All stakeholders we interviewed reported not having a solid understanding of a “cross-disability” viewpoint, but generally expressed a strong desire to learn more. Most nonprofit and criminal justice professionals expressed concern with not knowing how to ask the right questions and not knowing how to screen for disabilities and feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of serving people who may not know they have a disability.

It is a lot to ask the criminal justice reform sector to know about a cross-disability lens, because its use is not widespread. We would argue that it should be. The cross-disability lens has largely been limited to Centers for Independent Living over the past few decades. The cross-disability practice is where people and the organizations they represent ideally operate with a preparedness to engage in serving people with any kind of disability. In everyday use, it is an important aspiration towards inclusion that can come with a range of challenges in terms of practice, information and accommodation.

Since the early days of the disability movement in the 1970s, there have been overlapping disability identities where people with disabilities both identify collectively as a group and individually by disability type.[58] Some of the historical barriers to a collective identity of disability is due to stigma amongst different disability types.[59] If some disabilities are privileged over others, a disability hierarchy is created and can perpetuate discrimination and further disability stigmatization and harm. For example, someone could say, “I may have depression but at least I don’t use a wheelchair,” or, “I may use a wheelchair but at least I don’t have an intellectual disability.”

Yet there is significant merit to bringing all disabilities together and looking for opportunities to innovate, including in the area of furthering civil rights. The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, founded in 1975, was one of the first cross-disability coalitions of its kind and was essential in getting Congress to pass key rules related to implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.[60] This coalition was comprised of all races, genders and disabilities.

“They were deaf, blind, paraplegic, epileptic and cerebral palsied. Some were lawyers and college professors, while others had been on welfare and SSI (Supplemental Security Income) for years. Some were radical, some were moderate, some were conservative. They came because they wanted to enhance their human and civil rights, because they wanted better education and better jobs, because they needed housing and transportation.”[61]

Dr. Frank Bowe

We believe a cross-disability approach is essential to identifying and providing accommodations to reduce incarceration. We know that a cross-disability practice is not just a coalition of people representing disability types, but one that encompasses leadership, organizational values, preparation and budgeting. It is a practice that values inclusivity by making sure no person is left out or harmed by not asking the right questions or by not providing accommodations. A key part of a cross-disability practice is also teaching people with disabilities to advocate for what they need. We know people become more empowered when they are in an environment that is open to communication, accommodation supports and learning from one another and thus are more likely to take advantage of supports and services.

When we spoke with policy staff members at the Cook County Adult Probation Office, they stated, “The whole system needs to be trained on people with disabilities and how to interact with them. It would be beneficial for organizations to be trained on best policies and practices when serving people across disability type.” Jordan Boulger, the Director of Research and Program Evaluation at Cook County’s Adult Probation Department, said, “We are talking about a lack of access to justice. For example, what do facilities look like, how can we improve on accessibility? It’s important that everyone is at the table to understand how to accommodate those working within the system and those we serve.”

Nationally, Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) is looked to as a way to de-escalate situations in which people with disabilities come into contact with police. In Chicago, this training has recently expanded its topics beyond mental health to include additional disability types, but it is still not fully inclusive of all disabilities. Lt. John “Jack” Benigno, the Chicago Police Department’s commanding officer of instructional design and quality control, said that CPD now includes “force mitigation” and de-escalation techniques in its annual in-service training. This is in addition to having CIT-trained officers, whose specialty is responding to people experiencing a mental health crisis. He agreed that there is a lot more to explore in serving people with different kinds of disabilities.

People with disabilities should have access to any and all resources that help prevent them from becoming justice-involved, but we may be missing something if these resources are not evaluated from a cross-disability standpoint. It is equally important that criminal justice providers be trained in cross-disability awareness, practice and accommodation processes to avoid possible harm to people with disabilities.[62] Locally, nonprofits and criminal justice agencies should consider working with local CILs, which are run by a majority of people with disabilities and which are supposed to operate from a cross-disability standpoint.

Providing cross-disability training to both community organizations and criminal justice systems should decrease misunderstandings about disability, reduce stigmatization and help organizations make all people feel comfortable and welcome. However, when disability needs clash with an unaccommodating, compliance-based environment, people with disabilities can be misinterpreted, categorized as defiant, criminalized and pushed directly into the criminal justice system.

Recommendation 5:

Enhance the transparency of disability policy and data to open opportunities for substantial change to the continued reduction of the number of people with disabilities in jail.

It can be challenging to get a full picture of how many people with disabilities are in jail and what types of disabilities are being counted. A jail’s population shifts daily and a jail may serve only certain groups of people who are being charged with crimes. An additional challenge is that not everyone who has a disability may know it or reveal it.

The last major national survey of people in jail that relied on self-reporting of disability was the National Inmate Survey of 2011-2012. This report surveyed prison inmates (people serving time after being sentenced) and jail inmates (people held in jail awaiting pretrial or sentencing). The report, “Disabilities Among Prison and Jail Inmates, 2011-2012,” was based on this survey and revealed:

  • An estimated 32 percent of prisoners and 40 percent of jail inmates reported having at least one disability.
  • Prisoners were nearly three times more likely and jail inmates were more than four times more likely than the general population to report having at least one disability.
  • About two in 10 prisoners and three in 10 jail inmates reported having a cognitive disability, the most common reported disability in each population.
  • Female prisoners were more likely than males to report having a cognitive disability, but were equally likely to report having each of the other five disabilities.
  • Non-Hispanic white prisoners (37 percent) and prisoners of two or more races (42 percent) were more likely than non-Hispanic black prisoners (26 percent) to report having at least one disability. More than half of prisoners (54 percent) and jail inmates (53 percent) with a disability reported a co-occurring chronic condition.
  • Compared to those without a disability, prisoners with a disability were about four times more likely and jail inmates with a disability were nearly 2.5 times more likely to report past 30-day serious psychological distress.
  • Thirty-three percent of prisoners and 47 percent of jail inmates with a cognitive disability reported past 30-day serious psychological distress, compared to 11 percent of prisoners and 24 percent of jail inmates with a disability other than cognitive.[63]

This national data reveals that people with disabilities in jail tend to have more than one disability and to be experiencing more acute distress than their non-disabled peers. It also tells us, importantly, that there is a dynamic that seems to prevent black people from self-reporting disability. These are important insights in identifying areas for possible innovation.

However, on the local level, trying to get this level of data is very difficult.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office posts daily bulletins, “Behind the Wall,” containing basic demographic information on the jail’s current population.[64] This is an important public service for those looking to understand who is in the jail and how to strategically work to reduce the jail population. The report includes demographics for gender, race and age, but not disability. In August 2019, more than 90 percent of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail were male, approximately 70 percent were black and approximately 60 percent were 34 and younger.[65]

We spoke with staff at the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to ask whether disability information was collected. Our thinking was that asking people to identify whether they had a disability might help trigger the reasonable accommodation process. The response at that time was that certain pieces of disability information were in fact being collected, but not at initial intake and that the information was not public. Moreover, the collection of disability data was viewed as more of a medical effort related to securing healthcare; Cook County Jail medical data is gathered and kept by a separate entity, the Cook County Health and Hospitals System. Sheriff’s Office staff members were open to discussing ways to get a better data picture of people with disabilities in the jail, and the office does employ an ADA coordinator.

Chicago Police Department representatives said their arrest intake forms do not ask if a person being arrested needs a reasonable disability accommodation. It is unknown whether nationally any police department or jail intake forms are consistently asking this question or even whether 911 operators and first responders ask if callers need any disability accommodations upon their first contact. NAMI advises that those who call 911 should identify whether someone is in psychiatric crisis and that they should ask for a CIT-trained officer.[66]

Increasing transparency in disability data and disability policy allows for greater community input and a more collaborative relationship between systems and the people they serve. Furthermore, the data collected should be cross-disability and should be viewed as an opportunity to see disability as a factor of social barriers, not medical diagnosis. This increased transparency would also provide information the community needs to best accommodate the needs of their community members and justify opportunities to seek funding to increase accessibility.

Representatives of criminal justice systems interviewed stressed they need more data to get the full scope of disabilities across disability type who are coming into contact with and represented across the criminal justice system. The representatives also said that this data would help identify missing links in accommodations, services and resources.

Sharing disability policy and data publicly is also important for building trust with the community. Transparency can open agencies to increased community support, collaboration and instrumental feedback. Many grassroots, community-based organizations rely on data sharing to apply for funding for their community-based work. Without data sharing, many small organizations within the most impacted communities struggle to maintain funding to continue to provide meaningful services to those in the community who need these services the most.

Local criminal justice agencies should proactively begin asking criminal justice-involved persons to self-identify, at first point of contact, whether they have a disability and whether they need disability accommodations. This creates a way to track and publish data to increase opportunities for collaborative efforts to reduce the incarceration of people with disabilities.

Recommendation 6:

Within the criminal justice system, implement internal employee ADA accommodation guidance and training; helping accommodate staff might, in turn, help them help community members.

Our interviews with professional stakeholders highlighted a lack of understanding on how to personally access ADA accommodations for oneself. Through our research during this initiative and through Access Living’s work historically, employment discrimination towards people with disabilities is well-known. This can occur before a person is even considered for employment or after when they try to access accommodations. Many workers expressed fear of stigma and retaliation if they were to ask their supervisors or human resources personnel about how to access accommodations. Some of the stakeholders interviewed self-identified as persons with a disability but did not want to be identified publicly for this report. Criminal justice professionals reported they fear they may face job suspension or job loss if they access resources for certain disability-related needs.

The question of workplace accommodations is especially important for any front-line criminal justice agency worker who is responsible for enforcing the compliance of justice-involved persons. Police function in the United States was initially established to prevent crime and support community social service needs. Over the years this function has changed into an enforcement/compliance-based model of policing, placing increased stress upon law enforcement personnel and the communities they serve. Stress and its effects, when they impede a person’s ability to do their job, can be a disability under the ADA.

We have to ask: is it possible that criminal justice employees who receive better training and support for their own disabilities could, in turn, better recognize, acknowledge and respond to people in the community with disabilities?

Among those we interviewed was Edward Simmons, a person with a disability who uses a wheelchair. Simmons is a prior Cook County Jail employee and previous Access Living board member. He reports that while he was working at the Cook County Jail, accessibility was historically an uphill battle. Simmons attests that some accessibility accommodations were made for him to do his job, but this was a process and not fully inclusive of all his needs. Simmons said it is imperative that criminal justice agencies hire more people with disabilities to create a truly inclusive environment with a shared internal understanding of the vast variety of supports that people with disabilities need.

In certain situations, an employee’s disability needs may conflict with what is legally required for their job role. CPD Lt. Benigno pointed out that officers who seek assistance for mental health may lose their right to carry their duty weapon. From Access Living’s many years of cross-disability practice, including peer support, we know that those who have disabilities are important for supporting the success of their peers with disabilities. Thus, we would urge criminal justice agencies to carefully consider how disability status may actually be an asset to their talent pools.

Many criminal justice employees report fear of judgement, discrimination, stigmatization and workload bias. Workplaces should train their employees on how to access disability accommodations for themselves if they need them – and encourage diversity and inclusion through the employment of people with disabilities and establishing internal employee disability councils. These supports can lead to an increased level of workplace comfort in talking about disabilities, increased understanding of disability rights and the knowledge to feel more comfortable and confident talking about disability to the public.

Criminal justice agencies should evaluate opportunities to encourage staff to self-identify as people with disabilities and recognize the advantages of a diverse workplace that respects staffs’ individualized strengths. Criminal justice employees should have access to understanding the process of how to request disability accommodations for themselves. Establishment of internal employee resource groups centered on disability status would help promote inclusivity and remove stigma.

Recommendation 7:

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.

“I just got pulled over with my best friend, and they treated me like, as if I could get up and run away from them. They pulled out they gun, I said, ‘Man, what is you doing? I can’t even walk. I’m paralyzed.’”

Efferson Williams, Impacted Community Member

“If it’s called the Department of ‘Corrections’ then why are people coming home, going right back into the jail one month, two months later? People are being sent back out with several barriers and no direction to navigate these obstacles, particularly if they have a disability.”

Efferson Williams, Impacted Community Member

Accessible diversion/deflection programs, as well as non-law enforcement options for people with disabilities in crisis, could be crucial to reducing jail incarceration. Community engagement teams and programs that focus on listening to the needs of the community, strengthening community trust and reducing disability stigmatization can reduce the reliance on a law enforcement response. Furthermore, such programs are important for building community members’ disability identities and further focusing on strengthening relationship-building within the community.

Many times, family, friends or concerned community members may call 911 because they want to help a person in crisis and are unaware of alternatives to a police response. However, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority found that “researchers estimate officers are 1.4 to 4.5 times more likely to use force during [mental health crisis calls] interactions, increasing the risk of harm for both the officer and the individual in crisis.”[67] When the need for disability flexibility conflicts with a rigid criminal justice system, the results can be deadly.

To prevent this, emergency response options for 911 dispatchers should include non-law enforcement personnel who can be dispatched when a person with a disability is having a crisis. The criminal justice system is largely compliance-based and the disability experience by and large is one of noncompliance. Some aspects of law enforcement response, such as uniformed police services and using bright flashing lights and sirens, can create additional barriers for a person with a disability. The criminal justice system sometimes requires a person in crisis to do something they physically or mentally cannot do. “[There will be a problem] if someone orders you out of a car and your legs do not function. It’s just that simple,” said Lt. Benigno with the CPD. “Officers need to know that there are resources out there to divert people.” Non-law enforcement resources should be made available and law enforcement personnel should know what these resources are.

CILs located within communities most impacted by crime and incarceration could, with investment, provide for a safe haven for people with disabilities. They and their families could access resources and mentorship, learn more about disability identity, disability community, disability justice and their legal rights, and gain self-advocacy skills. Investing in such programs could give rise to options not available elsewhere.

The Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood is another example of one alternative police can utilize instead of jail. The triage center is open 24/7 for police drop-offs and individual walk-ins. These voluntary wellness centers provide alternatives to sole reliance on 911 operators and law enforcement responses, and ultimately help build community by helping people avoid incarceration for criminalized behaviors that do not necessitate arrest. The Center services the community through mobile crisis resources, a crisis line and its drop-in center which provide a safe space, crisis intervention, referrals and follow-up services.

Dr. Rashad Saafir, president and CEO of the Bobby E. Wright Mental Health Center, which also operates a mobile crisis program, says his agency wants people who can go out into the community to prevent people from having to utilize emergency rooms. Stress and the resulting behaviors from stress, such as suicide attempts and substance abuse, are prevalent in the community, especially during the holidays. “We are hoping to avert some of the issues that come up that would typically would require someone from the Chicago Police Department to respond, like a CIT officer,” he said. The agency’s mobile crisis workers respond to the community without police, to provide point-in-contact services to the community. This fills a gap in services and provides an alternative to incarceration.

Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC) is an Illinois statewide provider serving people in courts, corrections and child welfare, primarily with mental health and substance abuse disabilities. Officials there also stress the importance of diversion efforts. Director of Policy Laura Brookes said, “We know that many people involved in the criminal justice system have under-treated behavioral health conditions that can be better addressed in the community than in correctional settings. Many (people) can be safely diverted into these systems.” For many with visible and invisible disabilities, this could go a long way in helping to alleviate the chronic involvement in correctional and other public systems.

Of note nationally, an emergency response program in Oregon, CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), has garnered attention for providing mobile crisis intervention 24/7 in the Eugene-Springfield metro area. Each response team has a medic and a caseworker who work to coordinate a range of services for the person in crisis.[68]

Era Laudermilk of the Cook County Public Defender’s Office emphasized the importance of deflection and diversion programs. She is trained in restorative justice practices and believes that such interventions are more effective than typical enforcement responses. “Restorative justice practices help to address historical harm to help make people and communities whole,” said Laudermilk. She noted that restorative justice diversion courts better help the community and those charged with a crime to understand each other and produce healthier harm-reduction outcomes. Rather than strictly punitive measures, a crime victim can personally learn more about the individual charged with a crime and what community resources that individual might be lacking, while the person charged with a crime learns how their actions impacted the victim and community. Once a person successfully completes restorative justice court, the criminal charges are expunged. “It’s a powerful thing when everyone comes together and can work together,” said Laudermilk.

Recommendation 8:

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.

“I don’t want housing in jail. I want my own housing, and if I had that, a lot of this wouldn’t be happening.”

Lisha Fields, Impacted Community Member

Affordable and accessible housing is an essential community-based service, as Access Living has recognized since opening its doors in 1980. Less than 5 percent of the housing stock nationally is accessible to people with moderate to severe physical disabilities, and less than 1 percent is accessible to those who use wheelchairs.[69] The search for housing is further complicated when a person with a disability has been charged with or convicted of a crime.

Those who struggle the most to secure housing are people in poverty with disabilities who need accessibility accommodations. When a person is disabled and has a criminal record their discrimination is compounded by ever-shrinking options. Investing in safe, affordable and accessible housing in disinvested communities would increase the availability of safe spaces available in highly criminalized areas. It is vital that current and new affordable, accessible housing options do not discriminate against people with disabilities who have a criminal record or who have a household member with a criminal record. It is equally imperative that the definition of “affordable” and “accessible” are outlined by those who need the housing most.

Cathleen O’Brien, housing organizer at Access Living, advocates for accessible affordable housing for people with disabilities in Chicago. She noted that people with disabilities who are unemployed may receive Social Security income which maxes out at $771 a month, making it virtually impossible to find an accessible studio apartment in the city, where the average rent is $1,500 a month. Even if a person with a disability can afford the rent, O’Brien explained, “Most of the people seeking housing with criminal records are excluded from housing wait lists due to their criminal records.”

Unstable housing is a recurring theme as a precursor to further criminal justice system involvement, along with other factors. In Chicago, people with disabilities live in higher percentages in the South Side and West Side neighborhoods, according to the 2012-2016 U.S. Census’ five-year Disability Data-Set Estimates. Many of these neighborhoods are overwhelmingly communities of color.

In addition, individuals with criminal records are more likely to be homeless[70], and individuals who are more likely to be homeless are more likely to be jailed for minor quality-of-life or survival crimes.[71]

The CCH’s O’Connell told us of an interview with a homeless disabled woman who has been in and out of Cook County Jail for petty crimes and unpaid fines. This client is “scared to death to be locked up in Cook County Jail as a person with a disability,” since she requires accommodations in the jail setting. The client grew up in Chicago, was a victim of domestic violence and simply wishes that community resources were prioritized over criminalization. O’Connell believes if her client had been given more opportunities within the community, she wouldn’t be homeless and jobless and trapped in a cycle of incarceration with no other place to go. This cycle can be fed by a lack of accessible programs upon release from jail, such as inaccessible housing options and probation conditions that conflict with disability accessibility.

In 2019, the Illinois Justice Project and the Metropolitan Planning Council released a report detailing the lack of housing for the formerly incarcerated. The report noted: “Without stable housing, a justice-involved person’s life frequently gets disrupted, often with negative consequences as Illinois’ current 40 percent recidivism rate confirms.”[72] According to the report, public housing authorities have discretion to deny admission for “criminal activity that interferes with the health, safety or right of peaceful enjoyment of the property by other tenants.”[73] This leaves many individuals and families exposed to potentially discriminatory housing application rejections.

Housing discrimination against those with criminal backgrounds is so pervasive that Chicago housing advocates have worked for the past several years to pass the Just Housing Ordinance through the Cook County Board.[74] This county ordinance prohibits a criminal history question box on housing applications and implements an individual assessment test, with the goal of reducing discriminatory housing practices and providing greater access to safe, accessible housing for all people. As of this writing, the ordinance is in its final rule-making stages.*

Gianna Baker, co-director of the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, helped shepherd the ordinance through the process. She emphasized the importance of housing reforms being driven by impacted community members who can share direct lived experience, and by community faith leaders who can speak with moral authority. According to Baker, the first place many people in the Chicago Black community will go for help is to their local churches. Local churches should be not just included, but also informed and working collaboratively with activists and policymakers at the forefront of reform efforts, she said. While working on the ordinance, Baker said she found that people with any criminal conviction were struggling to obtain housing, but that housing instability especially impacts communities of color. These communities tend to have more people with disabilities.

The Frequent User Systems Engagement (FUSE) program from the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) is a model for possible replication. FUSE focuses on housing solutions for frequent utilizers of jails, hospitals, shelters and other crisis services.[75] FUSE connects vulnerable people to supportive housing and CSH reports seeing a reduction in criminal justice involvement, hospitalizations and shelter stays, and increased housing retention rates.

Implementing and expanding upon policies and programs such as the Just Housing Ordinance and FUSE is vital in ending persons of disabilities’ cycle of homelessness to incarceration.

*The ordinance has passed the County Board and will go into effect on December 31, 2019.