Research Is In – Recognizing Disability Leads to Better Outcomes in Criminal Justice System

Adapted for The Arc’s blog by Janet Keeler, Ph.D., Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities, Cleveland, Ohio

The Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities’ (CCBDD) Forensic Unit and Cleveland State University recently completed a seven-year collaborative research project focusing on the characteristics and offense patterns of 160 individuals with developmental disabilities (DD) in a large urban setting. This kind of research has never been done and conclusions are being used to inform criminal justice work in this community.

The findings are important because far too many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) are in our criminal justice system, with no recognition of their need for accommodations. People with I/DD and other disabilities often find themselves in the criminal justice system due to a lack of awareness of how to identify and meet the needs of this population when law enforcement encounters them as victims, offenders, or suspects. Too often there is little or no consideration for their diagnosis throughout the legal process, leading up to a decision in their case. The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD) is working to change this reality. For resources, training, and assistance, go to http://www.thearc.org/NCCJD.

Here are 4 takeaways from the research project:

  1. Early identification of individuals with DD in the criminal justice system is incredibly important. The research demonstrates that individuals with disabilities have better dispositions (the court’s final determination of a criminal charge) and access to targeted service delivery models when disability is identified at the start of the criminal justice process. The CCBDD Forensic Unit has developed multi-system identification methods to detect individuals all across the criminal justice system. This identification includes individuals already eligible for the CCBDD services who are identified via InJail, a shared electronic database with the County Sheriff’s office that provides notification upon booking in all jails in Cuyahoga County. Individuals who are not associated with the CCBDD but could be eligible for services are identified through a questionnaire administered at booking, followed up by outreach services.
  2. Access to trained criminal justice personnel leads to more appropriate outcomes. Through disabilities specific training and one on one consultation on each case, the Forensic Unit assists the specialized mental health/developmental disabilities (MH/DD) court personnel to understand individuals’ statuses, needs and the risks they face while incarcerated. The Forensic Unit liaisons are dispatched upon identification to support those individuals with disabilities who find themselves in the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center and assist with the challenges of being incarcerated. The forensic liaison meets and assists individuals in acclimating to jail, consults with attorneys and judges, and attends all court hearings until completion of the case, with the goal of collaborating in the process in the best interest of the individual. Due to this approach, many individuals in this study were sentenced to community control, an alternative to prison that usually involves intense monitoring and sometimes confinement to the person’s home rather than jail or prison.
  3. Repeat offense rate drops for those with access to disability supports. When successful service delivery models are used for people with disabilities in the criminal justice system, recidivism (the incidence of committing another crime that leads to re-arrest, reconviction or return to prison) is most often used to determine the success or failure of individuals sentenced to probation. This research study revealed very different recidivism rates for individuals who received specialized services – 14% re-offended, versus 28% of those individuals who experienced the process without appropriate access. The two factors attributed to this difference were the personal attention and additional advocacy in the process from the Forensic Unit liaisons and the impact of the knowledge of the judges who were trained in working with defendants with disabilities.
  4. Training criminal justice professionals can make all the difference for individuals with disabilities. This research confirmed that criminal justice professionals exposed to disability-specific training results in better outcomes for individuals with disabilities. And in addition to judges, lawyers, as well as probation/parole/corrections officers, training should be provided to school personnel (School Resource Officers or SROs), police departments, treatment professionals, and victim assistance agencies staff in order to facilitate communication, collaboration, early identification, and ultimately effective service provision for people with disabilities.

This groundbreaking research has led to many more questions to explore for the research team. The NCCJD staff would like to explore ways to gather data nationally on the number of people with I/DD who are in prison. We also need further research on what comprises effective training on disability issues for criminal justice professionals. What exactly made THIS training effective in reducing recidivism? It begs the question – what is more important, the “personal attention” or the training?

For a more in-depth look at a sub-topic in criminal justice and I/DD, join NCCJD on July 30th from 1:30-3:30 for their white paper release and accompanying webinar, “Sex Offenders with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: Problems and Solutions from Around the Nation.” Register here: http://www.thearc.org/nccjd/training/webinars.