Disability Rights and the Criminal Justice System

with Leigh Anne McKingsley of The Arc

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) are more likely to be arrested, charged with a crime, and serve longer sentences if convicted, than people without disabilities.

Leigh Anne McKingsley, Senior Director of the Criminal Justice Initiative with The Arc, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss efforts to promote safety and fairness in the justice system for people with IDD.

Posted on:

November 30, 2023

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Of the nearly 2 million people behind bars at any given time, about 40% have intellectual or developmental disabilities. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Everyone deserves justice, including people with disabilities. Yet this population is more likely to be arrested, charged with a crime, and serve longer sentences than people without disabilities. Joining me to discuss the importance of legal systems being designed with the needs and perspectives of people with disabilities in mind is Leigh Anne McKingsley, Senior Director of Criminal Justice Initiatives with the Arc. Leigh Anne, thank you so much for being here.

McKingsley: Thank you for having me.

Anderson: So, why is it, as we just heard, that people with disabilities are more likely to be entangled in the justice system?

McKingsley: Well, there are many reasons, but one of those is that we know that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities often have a more invisible type of disability, so it may not be actually easily observable to know if someone has a disability or not. And that can create really big issues for someone going into the system. Without knowing if someone has a disability, we can't provide accommodations in order to ensure equal access to justice. So, that is a key issue. And we've got issues both on the suspect-defendant side as well as the victim side. For someone who is a suspect of a crime, they may not be understood. In fact, they may be misunderstood when coming in contact with an officer. You might have heard that people can be criminalized because of their behaviors, and that means someone who doesn't understand autism, or someone who stims that has autism, may interpret that behavior as dangerous because they don't understand any other way. And so, that can actually increase or escalate a situation. And what we're wanting to do is to ensure that officers are trained on those things.

Anderson: So, share some numbers, briefly, if you can -- you know, comparison numbers, to give our viewers a sense of the scope of the issue.

McKingsley: Yeah. Thankfully, we do have data. Actually, when I started out in the field 27 years ago, we did not have this data. And we continue to ask for more data on these issues. But we know from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that 2 in 10 individuals have disabilities that are in our jails, and then 3 in 10 in the prison system. So, we've got that data to prove that they are overrepresented in the system. But I want to point out that they're also overrepresented as crime victims. And we've got data, also, to show, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, that people with disabilities are four times more likely to be crime victims. And when you look at sexual assault, we know that people with intellectual disabilities specifically are seven times more likely to experience sexual violence. So, whether you look at this population from the suspect-defendant side or the victim side, we see this overrepresentation throughout the criminal justice system.

Anderson: And, you know, there are all kinds of stories about this. I'm wondering if you can share a sort of real-world example for our viewers. You know, this isn't just about numbers, this is about actual people.

McKingsley: I think it's so important to share the stories. And we hear stories every single day at the National Center that we oversee here at the Arc. We take calls. We have a national information and referral call line, and we take calls from all over the country on this topic. And one of those calls came from NeliLatson. This was a young Black man who was in front of his library in Virginia, had his hoodie on. Someone thought he looked suspicious, and they thought he had a gun. And so, that person called police. Police come to the scene. They think that he looked suspicious. And now, they think he might have a gun, because of what the caller said. And when they approached Neli, he has autism. He's scared. He's not sure what's happening. When they go hands-on, and start touching him, that really creates a serious issue, because people with autism are more likely to be sensitive to touch, and things like that. So, of course, it's a fight or flight. He starts fighting. And then, we end up seeing him have a 10-year prison sentence because of that. And it was only because of advocacy organizations like The Arc and our National Center, working with other disability rights organizations, that he was able to get out of the prison system. And actually, just recently, he was able to go to the White House, and share his story about what happened.

Anderson: So these are the kinds of partnerships that The Arc is interested in. You have the Pathways to Justice program. I know it helps build relationships between disability organizations, law enforcement, and community-based response programs that don't involve the police. Tell us a little bit more about it, and how you know that these alternative tactics actually are working.

McKingsley: Well, that's a great question. We're very excited about the Pathways to Justice training because it's not only training. It goes far beyond training, and looking at creating what we call "disability response teams." Those are really planning teams that help address the situation before the crisis happens. We hear a lot about crisis intervention, but we're talking here about crisis prevention. And so, before you even take this training that we're offering, you must have this team in place. And that team also continues to operate after the training day. So, we're looking at creating community responses. You have to have a person with a disability involved in that team, as well as a law enforcement officer, an attorney, a victim advocate. So, it's a holistic approach to this issue. And it's a long-term approach, not just one training and you're done. We know that that approach does not work.

Anderson: Is there a city or a state where these kinds of programs that you're talking about really are showing promise?

McKingsley: Yeah. In fact, New Jersey is one example where they continue to meet as a disability response team, continue to provide training, and are very connected to the State's Attorney's office and other players in the criminal justice system. One that we're really proud of is in Virginia, where they were very active in passing legislation that would ensure that people with disabilities were getting appropriate sex education. And the reason that's important is we see people cycling into the system, once they don't have that education, as possible sex offenders. So, that's a big issue that we're seeing. And Virginia has been addressing that through their team approach to ensure that people in their community understand this, and they're going to be more proactive in addressing it.

Anderson: People are going to want to know more. What's your website? Where can they find more resources?

McKingsley: People can visit us online at thearc.org/nccjd to find out more about our Pathways to Justice training, as well as other resources that we offer.

Anderson: Leigh Anne McKingsley of the Arc, thank you so much for joining us.

McKingsley: Thank you so much for having me.

Anderson: And thanks to you, as well, for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson. ♪♪

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