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People with Intellectual Disabilities and the Prison System

  • Published: 2013-08-02 (Revised/Updated 2016-10-29) : Author: Thomas C. Weiss : Contact: Disabled World
  • Synopsis: Article examines persons with cognitive disabilities as victims or offenders of crime occurring more often than people who do not experience forms of disabilities.

Quote: "Nearly every person with a form of intellectual disability lives in the community and is susceptible to becoming involved in the criminal justice system as a victim or a suspect."

Main Document

People who experience forms of cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities become involved not only as victims of crime but as suspects or offenders more often than people who do not experience forms of disabilities.

While there is no way to know the exact numbers of people with intellectual disabilities who are victimized in America every year by crime because they are not included in federally mandated surveys, researchers have discovered that they have a 4-10 times greater risk of becoming victims of crime when compared with people who do not experience disabilities.

Children with any form of disability are 3.4 times more likely to experience abuse when compared to children without disabilities.

People with intellectual disabilities also constitute a small but growing percentage of suspects and offenders within the American criminal justice system.

While they comprise 2-3% of the general population, they represent 4-10% of the population in prison and an even larger portion of the population in juvenile facilities and jails.

One study examined the number of people with disabilities in state and federal prisons and discovered that less than 1% of the inmates experienced a form of physical disability, while 4.2% experienced a form of intellectual disability.

Crimes People with Intellectual Disabilities Commit

Chart showing some of the crimes people with intellectual disabilities commit
About This Image: Chart showing some of the crimes people with intellectual disabilities commit
The fact is that some people who experience forms of intellectual disabilities do commit crimes, not because they have below average intelligence, but due to environmental influences, their unique personal experiences, as well as individual differences. In the early 1900's, some professionals believed that people with intellectual disabilities were somehow, 'predisposed,' to becoming criminals based simply on the disabilities they experienced. The perspective lost support during the 1930's when their leadership rescinded their original beliefs and the focus on causes of crimes changed from biological reasons to sociological and psychological ones.

Research from the mid-1980's through the 1990's discovered that types of crimes committed ranged from property crimes such as robbery or theft, to sexual and physical assault. Some people with intellectual disabilities have also been accused of murder. One researcher discovered that many people with intellectual disabilities who committed sexual crimes were themselves sexual assault victims and that their experience as victims was linked to their becoming offenders.

The Disadvantages People with Intellectual Disabilities Face in the Criminal Justice System

Nearly every person with a form of intellectual disability lives in the community and is susceptible to becoming involved in the criminal justice system as a victim or a suspect. As a suspect, a person with intellectual disabilities is frequently used by another criminal to help with illegal activities without understanding their involvement in a crime, or the consequences of their involvement. They might also have a strong need to feel accepted and might agree to help with criminal activities to gain the friendship of others. A number of people with intellectual disabilities unintentionally provide misunderstood responses to police officers, something that increases their potential to be arrested, incarcerated, and possibly even executed - even if they have not committed a crime.

When taking these extreme disadvantages into consideration, it is not surprising that people with intellectual disabilities are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and then sentenced and victimized in prison. After they become involved in the criminal justice system, people with intellectual disabilities are less likely to receive parole or probation and usually serve longer sentences because of an inability to understand or adapt to the rules of prison. Some common responses from people with intellectual disabilities that might affect their ability to protect their rights include:

Chart showing some reasons behind the victimization of people with intellectual disabilities
About This Image: Chart showing some reasons behind the victimization of people with intellectual disabilities
People with intellectual disabilities may also become the victims of crimes very easily unfortunately. Sadly, the victimization of people with these forms of disabilities may find them behind bars as well. As victims, they may:

Protecting the Rights of People with Intellectual Disabilities

Training and eduction are vital if people with intellectual disabilities are going to receive equal justice. Children, teenagers, and adults with intellectual disabilities need to learn about the potential for meeting a police officer, how to protect their rights during such encounters, as well as how to speak up if they are being victimized. Cross-training must happen among all professionals in police departments, schools, courtrooms and victim assistance agencies as a means to begin opening the lines of communication between these systems.

In schools, parents who are concerned may contact their school's special education department and request the use of relevant training if it is not available. Parents may also contact their local police department and ask for the training officer or police chief and the victim assistance department. If intellectual disabilities is not included in their training, parents and advocates can request that it be provided as a separate module apart from mental illness so police officers and victim advocates do not confuse the two forms of disabilities. Educating court officials can start by contacting the court liaison and requesting a meeting with the judge to find out what training is currently being provided.

Resources and Citations:

The Americans with Disabilities Act and Prison Conditions - Facilities covered by Title II of the ADA including detention and correction facilities are required to make services and programs or activities accessible to people with disabilities - Thomas C. Weiss - Aug 04, 2013

"There Is No Treatment Here:" Disability and Health Needs In A State Prison System

Broadly, the number of prisoners with disabilities is substantially higher than it is in the general population (Groom, 1999; Russell & Stewart, 2001). Estimates of the number of youth with disabilities in prison run as high as 70-100% (Leone, Zaremba, Chapin, & Iseli, 1995; Russell & Stewart, 2001). The prevalence of prisoners with intellectual disabilities is much higher than in the general population, both nationally and internationally (Cockram, Jackson, & Underwood, 1998). Some theorize that, as other institutions for people with disabilities have closed their doors or lost funding, they have been replaced by prisons as a place to segregate and surveil people with disabilities (Russell & Stewart, 2001).

People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in the Criminal Justice System

The total number of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in prisons and residential programs (26,500 to 32,500) underestimates the extent of the problem since the number of those who are on probation, in local jails or placed in programs for people with mental illness remains unknown. While those in the criminal justice system constitute a small portion of all people with this disability, the number is significant enough to warrant the attention and concern of self-advocates, parents, criminal justice personnel and policy-makers. Standardized procedures which gather data nationwide are necessary before a more accurate number of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities involved in the criminal justice system can be determined.

Disablement, Prison, and Historical Segregation

The story of disablement and the prison industrial complex must begin with a trail of telling numbers: a disproportionate number of persons incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails are disabled. Though Census Bureau data suggest that disabled persons represent roughly one-fifth of the total population, prevalence of disability among prisoners is startlingly higher, for reasons we will examine later. While no reliable cross- disability demographics have been compiled nationwide, numerous studies now enable us to make educated estimates regarding the incidence of various disability categories among incarcerated persons. Hearing loss, for example, is estimated to occur in 30 percent of the prison population, while estimates of the prevalence of mental retardation among prisoners range from 3 to 9.5 percent.


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