The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD) fields calls from all over the country regarding people with disabilities in the criminal justice system. From a first encounter with a police officer to their time behind bars, the horrors people with disabilities regularly face are shocking and appalling. All too often, it’s simply a blatant disregard for human rights that set off a chain of events that deny people with I/DD justice. And the fact that this continues to occur in 2014 is unacceptable. However, every so often, a case comes to our attention and events unfold in a way that looks a little bit more like “justice.”
A few months ago, an Illinois family contacted NCCJD to search for assistance. Their son, Jack1, who has intellectual and developmental disabilities, had been charged with felony assault at the group home he had recently moved into. After a verbal altercation between Jack and another resident, a third resident called the police. Jack was arrested and, in the process, struck a police officer who grabbed him by the hoodie from behind as he attempted to exit the situation. The officer threatened to taze him if he did not cooperate while they had Jack on the ground trying to handcuff him.
Jack spent 24 hours in jail without support or access to his medication. His parents called and spoke to the supervisor of the Adult Detention Center to inform them of Jack’s needs. Jack’s parents were told that their son should be able to tell the nurse himself about his needs and pharmacy information. Jack was unable to do that, leaving him at risk and without access to his medications. Jack was read his Miranda rights without assistance and he did not understand what he was agreeing to. His parents were never called while he was jailed.
Jack was assigned a public defender the day he went to bond court. The judge initially put a large bond on Jack because he struck a police officer. However, the public defender argued for low-no bail because of Jack’s disability. The judge reduced bond from $30,000 to $10,000, after asking Jack’s parents if they could afford the $1,000 on a $10,000. Jack was out on bond when, as part of the legal process, his competency was evaluated and he was found unfit to stand trial. The state attorney refused to dismiss charges and the public defender was forced to send Jack for a sanity evaluation—which was completed by the same state appointed psychologist that earlier saw him for competency. Jack was found not sane at the time of the incident.
These sets of circumstances are all too common for people with disabilities, and are a great injustice. Thankfully, Jack had a public defender that insisted upon a competency evaluation and a sanity evaluation. And Jack’s parents contacted NCCJD and The Arc of Illinois Life Span Program looking for resources. Jack’s mother found NCCJD through The Arc’s main webpage and used the “Request Assistance” form to e-mail NCCJD. Working together with family members, Jack’s service providers, The Arc of Illinois Life Span Program, and NCCJD, advocates were able to put together a personalized justice plan for Jack. The plan outlined resources and possible alternatives for assisting Jack in the community and the plan was supported by the Director of Illinois Department of Human Services, Division of Developmental Disabilities. The report was submitted to Jack’s public defender, who used the report to get the case dismissed. Because the public defender was able to demonstrate that Jack had appropriate services in the community and that there were additional supports being made available as needed, the case was dismissed.
Jack was arrested in mid-March of 2014 and the case was finally dismissed in mid-October. There were almost monthly hearings throughout the ordeal, causing a great amount of stress to everyone involved. When the case was finally dismissed, the family felt like Jack had been misunderstood by the legal system from the beginning. They believe the court did not understand the difference between mental illness and developmental disability, because the judge often spoke to Jack as though he had a normal IQ but was experiencing mental illness. The parents continually questioned the public defender as to whether the judge and state attorney were aware that Jack had a developmental disability. Despite all the shortcomings in this case, the public defender took the necessary steps to ensure dismissal of the case, and the Judge was open to reading the personalized justice plan and making a dismissal.
When asked how he felt when he was arrested, Jack said:
“My heart was racing 290 because I was in the back of a squad car, handcuffed.” [At the police station] “I pretty much felt like a nervous wreck.” [When I went to the Adult Detention Center] “I felt sick to my stomach because I was around people I didn’t know.” [A couple of days before court] “I felt scared and nervous.” [At court] “I felt scared I was going to jail.” [On the last day of court] “the judge calmly talked to me and explained what would happen the next time I got in trouble.” [When the court case was dismissed] “I was still edgy.” “I feel more calmly now” [that it is over.]
The family said of their experience:
“Although this experience was excruciatingly painful for us, there was a positive outcome. The experience has helped our family realize there is work to be done in this area to make sure this never happens to anyone else. We are on board with helping NCCJD and The Arc of Illinois in any way we can to get legislation changed and the first responders, courts, etc. trained in handling the I/DD population. This needs to happen in all communities across the U.S. with group homes. NCCJD is a great national center to dispense this information so that each state/community doesn’t have to keep reinventing the wheel, which would make this happen even faster! We would also like to thank Leigh Ann Davis and Kathryn Walker for their time and efforts. Leigh Ann took time out of a business trip to make contact with me to make sure information was being shared. This is what we need — go to people!!!”
Deb Fornoff, Director of The Arc of Illinois, Illinois Life Span Program said:
“The staff of The National Center on Criminal Justice and Developmental Disability provided support, information, and connection with experienced legal advocates who provided the information we needed to put together a Personal Justice Plan. This Plan was assembled with tremendous collaboration between this man’s family and their son’s service providers, and facilitated by the staff from Illinois Life Span. It provided much needed information to the court about this individual and the services and supports in place and available to him. The plan included details that were otherwise very difficult to address. Thank you, Leigh Ann Davis and Kathryn Walker for your time, your help, and your ongoing commitment to alleviating the injustice that currently exists for individuals with ID/DD in our legal system nationwide.”
NCCJD would not be the resource it is without the dedication of advocates like Deb and families like Jack’s. To anyone with a criminal justice and disability issue, please request assistance! For more information on Personalized Justice Plans, view NCCJD’s archived webinar.
To find a list of resources by state or submit a resource, please visit our state by state map.
1 Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.