“The Times, They Are a-Changin”… But Will Criminal Justice Reform Measures Leave Some People Out?

By Leigh Ann Davis, Program Manager, NCCJD

A recent Huffington Post article stated: “America must turn the page on its over-dependence on the criminal justice system. In order to break arrest cycles and end inappropriate criminalization of people with mental illness, we must support community based behavioral health care. We need…systems dedicated to recovery for adults, resiliency for children and self-determination for people with intellectual disabilities. It is a new year, a time for reflection and new resolve. America needs a new approach to mental health care – it is a matter of life and death.”

It’s becoming increasingly apparent to those outside of the disability community just how often people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) are suffering at the hands of a criminal justice system that struggles both to identify their disability or, once identified, respond effectively to them as either victims, suspects or offenders.  For example, the popular Netflix documentary “Making A Murderer” showcasing Brendan Dassey’s coerced confession provided a view into how a person with a disability can be easily manipulated in the criminal justice system, and people with little or no direct involvement in disability and justice issues are witnessing how hard it can be for suspects with I/DD to experience a fair system of justice.

No matter what your opinion on the guilt or innocence of Brendan or his uncle, watching the episode where Brendan “confessed,” and seeing the techniques used to force the so-called confession, may cause some sleepless nights. Yes, it’s that disturbing. People new to this issue who are learning about forced confessions for the first time become outraged when they discover just how often this is going on. The hard reality is that there are countless other Brendans who are stuck in a criminal justice system that often doesn’t recognize their disability and isn’t equipped to serve them.

Bob Dylan wrote the hit song “The Times, They Are a-Changin” in the mid-60’s as a deliberate attempt to create an anthem of change for his time. Thankfully, criminal justice reform is in the air as evidenced by the President’s Task force on 21st Century Policing, which addresses “mental health” issues. There are bipartisan coalitions working together to achieve some level of success in reducing mass incarceration through sentencing reform and other measures. President Obama also emphasized criminal justice reform in his State of the Union address.  But the question remains, will people with intellectual and developmental disabilities – who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system – be left out? Even if “the times are a-changin” with regard to criminal justice reform, how will people with disabilities be included in this conversation, or will they even be invited to the table? When the President’s report mentions “mental health” does that include people with I/DD too? If we are to effectively change our criminal justice system, how do we take into account people with I/DD who are overrepresented in the system (both as victims and suspects), and at the same time, often invisible as well (since their disability is often not immediately recognizable)? NCCJD is researching this issue, diving deep into these difficult questions and seeking achievable solutions. We are on the front-lines, actively working to support policy that will:

  • Create systemic protocols to better identify individuals with I/DD in all stages of the criminal justice system, whether victim or suspect/offender
  • Support quality training for law enforcement, attorneys and victim service providers so that individuals with I/DD are appropriately identified as having a disability, and are provided with critical supports/accommodations that enable full access to justice
  • Ensure individuals with I/DD are included in key criminal justice reform programs, such as pre-trial diversion and sentencing reduction initiatives


NCCJD’s mission is to bridge the gap between the criminal justice and disability worlds. Over the next two years, with the continued support of DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, we will be addressing timely issues like competency to stand trial, and the intersection of race and disability in policing in white papers, media interviews, infographics, and other publications. We are expanding our Pathways to Justice™ training program to include an elective module for Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs) that will bring targeted attention and training to the issue of I/DD for law enforcement nationwide. We will continue to offer much needed support through our information and referral and technical assistance services to a broad audience of criminal justice professionals, as well as chapters of The Arc, advocates and family members.

Few would argue it’s become clear America needs a new approach when it comes to criminal justice issues. Whether professional, family member or other advocate, we must do all that is in our power to ensure citizens with intellectual and developmental disabilities are not left behind in this new era of criminal justice reform.

One thought on ““The Times, They Are a-Changin”… But Will Criminal Justice Reform Measures Leave Some People Out?

  1. This article is very timely and much appreciated.
    Here in Albuquerque we are struggling to get our police department to reinstate its Crisis Intervention Team and to restore to its police training program special training regarding the special needs and characteristics of people with I/DD.

    In February, the Arc of New Mexico was one of the sponsors of a series of presentations by Sam Cochran, the grand daddy of the CIT method, who came here to promote the “More” of CIT, but his message was not accepted by our mayor or our police chief.

    Please keep up your efforts to bring humanity and sanity to policing.
    Peter Cubra

Comments are closed.