Report: Jails Overlook Opportunities to Address Disability Despite Prevalence of Disability in Jailed Population


December 4, 2019 | by Bridget Hayman


Bridget Hayman

Director of Communications

(312) 640-2129

Access Living Finds Gaps in Efforts to Reduce Incarceration for People with Disabilities 

CHICAGO — Access Living today released a report highlighting the failure of the criminal justice system to adequately address and track the needs of people with all kinds of disabilities in jail.

The report, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, looks at how people with all types of disabilities experience the criminal justice system focused around jail, and finds that despite a general prevalence of disabled people in jails, there is a lack of disability-related data overall and a number of under-addressed opportunities to meet their needs, which would ultimately reduce incarceration rates. 

Nationally, an estimated 40 percent of people in jail self-report as having at least one disability, according to the 2011-2012 National Inmate Survey from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Recent efforts to reduce overall jail incarceration have given rise to a range of innovative strategies, such as cutting back on the use of cash bail, shifting the way prosecutors make decisions about charges, and addressing mental health services through deflection and services. Yet, Access Living uncovered many instances, even in new strategies, where disability has remained unseen, unaddressed or inadequately understood in the criminal justice system and reform efforts.

“We know that a number of disability advocates have been working for many years to bring a cross-disability look to criminal justice and restorative justice work,” said Amber Smock, Access Living’s Director of Advocacy.  “We wanted to amplify and focus the message of this work to tell policymakers: you have got to consider the full range of disability when revamping law, policy and practice.”

Access Living began surveying this issue area because it believes a cross-disability approach is needed to further change within the criminal justice system. A federally-designated Center for Independent Living, Access Living has served a number of people who have also been impacted by the Cook County, or other criminal justice systems. For many, their disability began or was worsened as a result of their criminal justice involvement. Repeatedly, community members report situations where people with disabilities would have benefited from supports and diversion rather than incarceration.

“My experience is a system that’s one of punishment and not of rehabilitation, one of condemnation rather than redemption,” said Chris Huff, who was incarcerated in when he was 15 years old and now has master’s degree in social work and a bachelor’s in political communication and economic development. Huff said he was never asked if he needed accommodations in jail nor were they provided. “Being a person with a disability is a very important part of my identity, not a part that can be dismissed.” 

Access Living reviewed different ways people with disabilities have contact with the criminal justice system; surveyed existing work in the field; and interviewed people with disabilities who have been incarcerated along with stakeholders in reform, and people who work in the criminal justice system. The mere fact of overrepresentation of people with disabilities in jail should spark thoughtful conversations to reduce jail incarceration. Access Living believes that that several steps can be taken to move forward the ongoing dialogue about reducing the number of people with disabilities in the criminal justice system.

The report outlines eight policy recommendations as a starting point to evaluate opportunity gaps for system reform:

  1. Increase storytelling and advocacy opportunities for people with disabilities who have had contact with the criminal justice system. 
  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. 
  3. Establish and enforce clear cross-disability accommodation policies and protocols covering all areas where people interact with the criminal justice system. 
  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. 
  5. 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. 
  6. Within the criminal justice system, implement internal employee Americans with Disabilities (ADA) accommodation guidance and training. 
  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. 
  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.

“We can no longer afford a piecemeal approach to criminal justice reform efforts. Reducing jail population is essential to addressing the damage done by mass incarceration to communities across the nation. Reframing disability in policies and programs designed to reduce jail incarceration, by centering on those disabled people who have been incarcerated, is essential to moving ahead,” said Smock.

Access Living will now begin a two-year project to convene working groups to refine the cross-disability lens for reducing jail incarceration, as well as highlight specific issue areas that could lead to reducing the use of jail for people with a variety of disabilities.