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Stakeholder Insights and Themes - Access to Justice


Stakeholder Insights

Innovative concepts emerged from the insights shared by criminal justice professionals, policymakers, disability activists, law professors and other stakeholders in response to being asked the following questions:

  1. What is the definition of crisis?
  2. What is the definition of harm?
  3. What is the definition of crime?
  4. What is the definition of community safety?

Some interviewees shared their responses anonymously. In the interest of equality of response, all responses are anonymous and in direct quotes.

Insight 1: Defining Crisis

“A need that has continuously gone unaddressed and therefore immediately needs to be met.”

“A situation where someone is at harm or risk of harm, where the person’s basic needs for quality of life are not being met or are being threatened.”

“Any situation an individual encounters where they don’t have the means of resolving that situation in a way that’s productive for them.”

“Something that interferes with the person’s ability to continue on with their lives at whatever level they were working on before.”

“A crisis is when you are not getting your basic necessities met and on top of that from the perspective of personal disability, not getting your access needs met either.”

“A crisis to me is like someone’s life is in jeopardy. Someone’s about to die. Someone’s about to be seriously injured. Some serious harm is about to come to like people’s individual lives or groups of people. Like that to me is a crisis. Anything short of that to me personally is not a crisis.”

Insight 2: Defining Harm

“Emotional, physical or mental pain.”

“Physical, economic, structural, emotional, sexual or psychological force exerted for the purpose of coercing, violating, damaging or abusing.”

“There’s clearly physical harm, but I think the greatest harm is done to an individual psyche in the sense of how they feel about themselves. I kind of look at three things. You know, harm in the sense of not feeling safe about where you are, about who you are or about what you’re doing. And so looking at that from an environmental lens, it’s like we’ve created these environments, these social conditions that do harm to people who live in communities like East, West Garfield Park; Austin; North Lawndale; every single day because they don’t feel safe in any of those categories. Their children don’t feel safe. So, yeah, they are harmed directly and vicariously. Kids who grow up in the community where they see other people who are not respected, who are shunned, you know, who don’t have access to resources. I think that’s harm.”

“Bodily harm is sort of anything that interferes with your bodily integrity, but we harm people in all kinds of ways that are not physical. So, I think it’s anything that prevents you from becoming the best person you can be, is a harm.”

“Anything that perpetuates you being physically harmed, emotionally harmed, lack of access. I think that is a harm people don’t talk about. Socially harmed – a lot of people with disabilities are isolated. A natural way of socializing with people is not the norm, so that can become a harm. I guess what is not normal for your being yourself and anyone trying to push against that is harm.”

Insight 3: Defining Crime

“Something illegal.”

“Crime just comes down to what the people in power and the policymakers have established as crime at that time because ultimately there are so many acts that I think are criminal that are not recognized as a crime. So even when we talk about the decision to cut back on community‑based mental health centers and to close six of them, I think that’s criminal. I think it’s criminal to even have such a police presence … When we talk about schools and how children are being treated and disciplined, I think it’s criminal for us to have an unequal education system. It’s criminal for our housing system that we actually have to sit down and put together data to advocate and say that people need a good place to live. We actually need to come up with data because we’ve devalued people that much. I think that’s criminal. … I think just even, thinking about the intersection, thinking of going back to the war on drugs – what that did to communities of color, what it’s done to people with disabilities. And now when we talk about the opioid crisis, and the face of the opioid crisis being white. … I just think of growing up in the war on drugs and what was done on TV … I look at some of the news stories now, and it’s such a dehumanizing way that we are talking about people; even thinking about how many stories I’ve seen about mothers and their children and just thinking back to when I was growing up and seeing on the nightly news of the crack babies and how there were these people who were terrible that needed to be incarcerated. So, I think all of that is just criminal.”

“An action that violates the criminal code.”

“Anything that is done to another human being that is against their will or consent.”

“I think that crime occurs on both sides of the aisle, so to speak. So individual human beings in the community can clearly commit crimes against other people in the community, but the system also commits crimes against individuals in the community. Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the United States, where if you’re black, you’re more likely to live in a community that is all black. To me, that’s a crime because that doesn’t occur by chance. That occurs as a result of institutional racism.”

“I think that, you know, probably more crime is committed systemically via institutional racism than is committed by the people we lock up and cart off to jail every day.”

“I think in a more philosophical sense a crime is anything that society has decided they want to discourage and that they’ve decided to use the coercive methods to discourage that activity. However, when we talk about the criminal justice system, it includes a lot of things that really aren’t crimes in any reasonable definition of them, but it’s a way that society has developed to hide its problems. So, for example, homelessness activities.”

“It’s hard for me as a Black woman to determine what a crime is. On so many levels, I mean, the fact that we are devalued, the fact that our natural bodies is being, the fact that if we have black pride we must be anti-everybody else. I mean it is just really hard for me to define crime just because I am an organizer and me speaking up or stepping up for somebody’s rights and pushing the envelope and putting my body and voice on the line deems me a criminal and let’s not go with disability. My lack of understanding, my lack of communication, my lack of body movements can all lead to being a crime. So, I have seen it play out on so many levels for so many people of color and so it is just hard for me to define what a crime is. Just a form of control of what institutions deem the norm, which there is nothing normal.”

“I tend to use criminalized behavior, because I think that our current society kind of forces folks to do things that are then deemed as crime in order to survive and, also, I think a lot of things that are defined as crime aren’t actually harmful, and, so, I also try not to use the word crime.”

Insight 4: Defining Community Safety

“It depends on what each community needs and asks for and what makes them feel empowered and safe.”

“I really think of people’s basic needs and quality of life being met. Housing, food, whatever you need for economic stability, just all those needs being met. Quality education.”

“Everyone having access to adequate food, shelter, healthcare, education and employment.”

“I think that it certainly includes a sense of well-being and freedom from the crime that I just kind of talked about, a sense of belonging within a culture … that’s accepting … where people feel like they’re part of the fabric of the community, and obviously where violence doesn’t occur at all. That’s probably very, you know, idealistic on my part, but even at my age, I still hold on to that idealism. I think it is possible to create communities where violence doesn’t occur. I don’t believe that … it’s just built into our human nature. I think that it is created out of circumstance, and circumstances quite often are controlled by other people.”

“A strong network of neighbors and friends that are mutually reinforcing and have their own sort of accountability structure, which is not coercive, at least in the state sense of using violence to lock people away.”

“Enough money for people with disabilities to eat, pay rent, have medical care and live happily in society.”

“Where people having the choice to pick people within their community, within their safe spaces who can support them and have access to your basic necessities, your basic needs in order to survive. It is a loving environment and love looks different for people. But it is a space where you can be yourself, where your needs are being met, you are in community, whatever community looks like for you. You are living and thriving.”

“Community safety looks like kids playing in a park, kids playing Double Dutch in the street without fear of harm, without fear of a crisis coming around the bend at any second. It’s kids walking to school without having to have escorts paid for by the city to make sure they get there safely. It’s grocery stores. It’s home ownership and people complaining about (other people) walking on their lawn, like people take pride in where they live, and that’s reflected in kids being out on the street, homes being maintained. There being local businesses, there being block clubs or other like group activities that people get to engage in, like going to a softball game after school with no worries. Like that to me, like that whole picture of what people get to experience in like the north and west suburbs on a regular basis that they take for granted, that to me is what community safety should look like for everybody.”

Stakeholder Themes

From our interviews, the following themes emerged repeatedly regarding people with disabilities and the criminal justice system:

  1. Destabilization of the social safety net
  2. Investment in communities
  3. Communication access and cognitive processing

We have provided a few direct quotes from interviews highlighting the recurring themes.

Theme 1: Destabilization of the Social Safety Net

“I don’t think a lot of housing providers have been trained in providing reasonable accommodations. So, if there is a criminal record that is related to the disability or receiving treatment for mental health that led to some sort of situation with the criminal justice system, reasonable accommodation housing advocacy could take place for that person’s criminal charge – but I don’t think people always think that way.”

“If you are a person who is surviving and you need food and someone is not understanding what you are saying, that could lead you into the system. This is usually predicated off you surviving and the system doesn’t understand you and pushes you in.”

“When people with disabilities are released from jail and do not have other housing options, they sometimes get placed into nursing homes as the only viable option. People with disabilities can get trapped in nursing homes and lose all their independence and self-sufficiency.”

Theme 2: Investing in Communities

“I just feel our criminal justice system in general just doesn’t meet anyone’s needs. We don’t have a system that focuses on restorative justice and rehabilitation. We have a system, as it’s called the ‘criminal justice system,’ that it criminalizes people. … Ultimately we need to focus on providing services to communities that have been disinvested.”

“I think ultimately the goal of it should be to have them not be a part of the system anymore. I think people just keep cycling through it. If people with disabilities are constantly in it instead of back in the community thriving, then it’s not working. And so, if they never get out of it, then it’s fundamentally not meeting their needs.”

“If we’re constantly giving up on humans, I think we have to come up with a system where we’re not giving up on people. We have to believe in treatment and we have to believe that people can be taught new behavior.”

“Everybody’s basic needs should be met, so: housing, food, emotional well‑being, education, physical safety and that, to me, in this current situation, looks like fair distribution of resources and also freedom from exploitative and dangerous labor.”

Theme 3: On Communication Access and Cognitive Processing

“If someone misunderstands how your body operates and they call the police – once you are in the system there are communication barriers – and if your reading level is extremely low, you don’t know what you are signing and what you are reading.”

“If you have disability access barriers, you can be charged as an accessory to a crime unknowingly by being around people you think are cool at a place and time a crime is occurring.”