The Arc Partners with the Vera Institute of Justice on National Initiative to Improve Police Responses to Persons with Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities

People living with mental health disabilities and/or intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) are disproportionately represented in contacts with law enforcement and other first responders, as well as in every part of the criminal justice system, including jails and prisons. While people with I/DD comprise 2 to 3 percent of the general population, they represent 4 to 10 percent of the prison population.

Interactions with law enforcement can be extremely harmful to community members with disabilities. These interactions are also challenging for responding officers, who do not always have the tools or resources to understand disability. Conservative estimates show that at least 10 percent of calls to police involve people who have mental health disabilities and that 50 to 80 percent of police encounters involve persons with some type of disability. In response to this critical need, the Vera Institute of Justice—in cooperation with the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and in partnership with a consortium of organizations, including The Arc—is launching Serving Safely: The National Initiative to Enhance Policing for Persons with Mental Illnesses and Developmental Disabilities. This new initiative is designed to promote collaborative responses for people with mental health disabilities and I/DD who come into contact with the police to improve outcomes and the safety of all parties.

Through Serving Safely, The Arc, Vera, BJA, and other partners will work together to minimize unnecessary detention and incarceration of persons with mental health and developmental disabilities, strengthen connections to community-based supports and services, and grow meaningful partnerships between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

The Arc has a long history of work in the criminal justice field and is thrilled to be partnering with Vera on this project. In 2013, The Arc created the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability® (NCCJD®). This is the first national center of its kind serving as a bridge between the I/DD community and criminal justice community that focuses on both victim and suspect/defendant/incarcerated person issues. The Center provides training and technical assistance; resources for professionals, people with disabilities, and their supporters; and educates the public about the intersection of criminal justice reform and the advancement of disability rights. Pathways to Justice®, NCCJD’s signature training curriculum, is a comprehensive, community-based training program that helps criminal justice professionals—including law enforcement—understand disability, disability culture, and professionals’ legal obligations toward the disability community.

NCCJD is building the capacity of the criminal justice system to respond appropriately to gaps in existing services for people with disabilities, focusing on people with I/DD, who often remain a hidden population within the criminal justice system, with little or no access to advocacy supports or services. Vera will be partnering directly with the experts and staff that run NCCJD on Serving Safely.

Other key partners on the project include:

  • American College of Emergency Physicians
  • CIT International
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness
  • National Disability Rights Network
  • Prosecutors’ Center for Excellence
  • Dr. Amy Watson, University of Illinois, Chicago
  • Dr. Michael Compton

Serving Safely has already started to accept requests from law enforcement agencies for training and technical assistance at www.vera.org/projects/serving-safely/training-and-technical-assistance. If you are interested in learning more about The Arc’s role in the Serving Safely initiative, please email NCCJDinfo@thearc.org.

About The Arc
The Arc advocates for and serves people wit­­h intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, and cerebral palsy. The Arc has a network of nearly 650 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes.

About the Vera Institute of Justice
The Vera Institute of Justice is an independent nonprofit national research and policy organization working with governments to build and improve justice systems that ensure fairness, promote safety, and strengthen communities. For more information about Serving Safely and the Vera Institute of Justice, see www.vera.org/projects/serving-safely.

The Arc Responds to Supreme Court Decision to Decline Review of Brendan Dassey Case

Washington, DC – Washington, D.C. – Today, The U.S. Supreme Court declined to grant review of Dassey v. Dittman. Brendan Dassey, a young man with social, learning, and developmental disabilities, was a central figure in Netflix’s smash docuseries, Making a Murderer He was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 16 after conviction for first-degree homicide, rape, and mutilation of a corpse based solely on his confession – no physical evidence linked him to the crime.

Dassey appealed the conviction on the grounds that his confession was involuntary. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals rejected this argument and affirmed Dassey’s conviction. A federal district court and a divided panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that this rejection warranted habeas relief, but by a 4-3 vote, the en banc Seventh Circuit disagreed. Dassey’s attorneys then made an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review the case, Dassey may spend the rest of his life in prison.

The Arc, the nation’s largest civil rights organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and their families, released this statement following the news that the nation’s highest court will not review Dassey’s case:

“This is a sad day for Brendan Dassey and his family, as well as our criminal justice system. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to not review this case means that Brendan will likely serve life in prison based solely on a dubiously obtained confession.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed the issue of false confessions by juveniles in almost four decades. There has been significant growth of knowledge and understanding of how adolescents can be more susceptible to authority figures, coercion, and misleading tactics in the last four decades.  This is particularly true for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Brendan Dassey has already been incarcerated for over a decade, solely on the basis of an unreliable confession. Now the reality of life in prison for a crime there is no physical evidence he committed is sinking in. Sadly, our prisons and jails hold many Brendan Dasseys, too often forgotten, some not even recognized as being robbed of justice. We have a responsibility to ensure everyone in our country accesses justice the same way, which is why we must acknowledge the gaps in justice many are facing. The Arc will continue fighting for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and in the aftermath of this case we will only increase our efforts to ensure that justice is appropriately served,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

While people with intellectual and developmental disabilities comprise 2% to 3% of the general population, they represent 4% to 10% of the prison population. Those accused of crimes they did not commit often face the greatest injustices of all, some losing their lives when coerced into giving false confessions. Long before Brendan Dassey’s case hit mainstream media, Robert Perske, respected author, advocate, and long-time supporter of The Arc, compiled a list of people with intellectual disability who gave false confessions to begin documenting these otherwise hidden-away cases.

Earlier this month, The Arc’s Criminal Justice Advisory Panel was launched. The panel is the latest addition to the organization’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability’s® (NCCJD®) ongoing advocacy to protect the rights of people with I/DD involved in the criminal justice system. During this event, The Arc presented, Steven Drizin, Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, with The Perske Award for championing the rights of people with I/DD in the criminal justice system. Drizin was presented the award for a lifetime of work on justice reform for youth and people with disabilities and his representation of Brendan Dassey

Established in 2013, NCCJD is the only national center of its kind serving as a bridge between the I/DD community and criminal justice community that focuses on both victim and suspect/defendant/inmate issues. The center provides training and technical assistance, resources for professionals, people with disabilities, and their supporters, as well as educates the public about the intersection of criminal justice reform and the advancement of disability rights. Pathways to Justice,® NCCJD’s signature training tool, is a comprehensive, community-based training program facilitated through chapters of The Arc that helps criminal justice professionals understand their legal obligations toward the disability community, and includes the topic of false confessions. NCCJD is building the capacity of the criminal justice system to respond appropriately to gaps in existing services for people with disabilities, focusing on people with I/DD, who often remain a hidden population within the criminal justice system, with little or no access to advocacy supports or services.

About The Arc

The Arc advocates for and serves people wit­­h I/DD, including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, and cerebral palsy. The Arc has a network of nearly 650 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes.

About The Arc’s Criminal Justice Advisory Panel

The Advisory Panel is the latest addition to NCCJD’s ongoing advocacy to protect the rights of people with I/DD involved in the criminal justice system. It brings together legal professionals who share The Arc’s mission to protect and promote the civil rights of people with I/DD and will help expand NCCJD’s crucial advocacy.

The Arc Applauds Supreme Court’s Decisive Rejection of Texas’ “Wholly Nonclinical,” “Outlier” Standards in Determining Intellectual Disability

By: Shira Wakschlag, Director of Legal Advocacy & Associate General Counsel
       Ariel Simms, Criminal Justice Attorney Fellow

In decisively rejecting these “Briseno factors,” the Court embraces the standards-based approach in determining intellectual disability for which The Arc has long advocated. When it comes to matters of life and death, there is simply no room for courts to ground their determinations of intellectual disability in outmoded and baseless stereotypes.

On Tuesday, in the third decision in favor of people with disabilities in the Supreme Court this term, the Court issued a 5-3 decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the death penalty case Moore v. Texas. The opinion rejects Texas’ use of stereotypical and outdated factors—rather than well-established clinical standards—to determine intellectual disability in death penalty cases on the grounds that they “create an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.” This is a major victory in protecting the rights of individuals with intellectual disability in the criminal justice system and in fulfilling the promise of two Supreme Court cases setting the standard that execution of people with intellectual disability is unconstitutional (Hall v. Florida (2014) and Atkins v. Virginia (2002)).

In Atkins, the Court held that executing defendants with intellectual disability violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Subsequently, in Hall, the Court rejected an arbitrary cutoff for IQ scores in making the intellectual disability determination and emphasized the importance of courts consulting clinical standards in their analysis. While the Court’s prohibition of the execution of defendants with intellectual disability could not be clearer, some states continue to define intellectual disability in a manner that significantly deviates from clinical standards, resulting in a miscarriage of justice for many defendants.

In this case, Bobby Moore, was convicted of killing a store clerk at the age of 20 in a botched robbery along with two accomplices. He was sentenced to death and challenged that sentence on the grounds of intellectual disability. In 2014, a state habeas court ruled that Moore did meet the criteria for intellectual disability and recommended that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) reduce Moore’s sentence to life in prison or grant him a new trial on the intellectual disability claim. On appeal, however, the CCA ruled that Moore did not meet the criteria for intellectual disability, finding that the lower court had failed to apply the seven-factor test laid out in an earlier Texas opinion, Ex Parte Briseno. The “Briseno factors” rely on stereotypes—rather than clinical definitions—through “the consensus of Texas citizens” in defining intellectual disability and are partly based on the character of Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Using these factors, the CCA found that, among other things, Moore’s ability to live on the streets, mow lawns, and play pool for money precluded a finding of intellectual disability and disregarded several IQ tests Moore had taken with scores in the intellectual disability range.

Decisively rejecting this ruling and referring to the Briseno factors as “wholly nonclinical” and an “invention of the CCA untied to any acknowledged source,” the Supreme Court held unanimously that such factors are impermissible to use in defining intellectual disability in death penalty cases. The Court noted that the Briseno factors were an “outlier” and that Texas did not employ this unscientific approach in determining intellectual disability in any legal issues other than the death penalty: “Texas cannot satisfactorily explain why it applies current medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability in other contexts, yet clings to superseded standards when an individual’s life is at stake.”

Even Justices who disagreed with other aspects of the ruling (Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, and Justice Clarence Thomas) agreed that the Briseno factors “are an unacceptable method of enforcing the guarantee of Atkins.” They disagreed that the CCA had erred in its determination of Moore’s intellectual functioning. The dissent criticized the majority opinion for its reliance on clinical standards as opposed to legal interpretation and precedent, noting: “clinicians, not judges, should determine clinical standards; and judges, not clinicians, should determine the content of the Eighth Amendment. Today’s opinion confuses those roles.”

With the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, The Arc filed an amicus brief in August 2016 in support of Moore and The Arc’s attorneys attended oral arguments at the Court in November 2016. The brief, cited in the Court’s opinion, argued that the state of Texas had distorted the clinical definition of intellectual disability by devising a formula of exclusionary factors that rested heavily on stereotypes and the mistaken notion that an ability to do things like engage in relationships, work, and live in the community precluded a finding of intellectual disability based on simultaneous limitations or challenges. Specifically, the brief noted that the “basic framework of the clinical definition is the constitutionally required standard for determining whether a defendant has intellectual disability.” Jim Ellis, a Distinguished Professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law who represented The Arc in this case said: “The Arc of the United States and its state chapters have played a vital role in protecting the rights of people with intellectual disability” in death penalty cases.

In decisively rejecting these “Briseno factors,” the Court embraces the standards-based approach in determining intellectual disability for which The Arc has long advocated. When it comes to matters of life and death, there is simply no room for courts to ground their determinations of intellectual disability in outmoded and baseless stereotypes.

The Arc has deep sympathy for the family and friends of the victim in this case, and we support appropriate punishment of all responsible parties. The Arc does not seek to eliminate punishment of Mr. Moore or others with disabilities, but rather, to ensure that justice is served and the rights of all parties are protected. The Arc is committed to seeking lawful outcomes for people with intellectual disability and will continue working to ensure that the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on this issue are abided by in jurisdictions across the country.

What’s at Stake at the Supreme Court for People with Disabilities? The Arc Reviews Judge Gorsuch’s Record on Disability Rights

By: Shira Wakschlag, Director of Legal Advocacy & Associate General Counsel

On January 31, 2017, President Donald Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee is set for March 20. A close review of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions pertaining to people with disabilities reveals a jurist with an exceptionally narrow view of the protections offered by federal disability rights laws—an approach that has led to deeply troubling results for members of The Arc in the Tenth Circuit’s jurisdiction. While Judge Gorsuch is a staunch proponent of the inherent dignity of all human beings, including those with disabilities, during his tenure on the Tenth Circuit he has not been a champion for robust enforcement of disability rights laws that are so crucial to enabling individuals with disabilities to lead dignified lives in the community, free from discrimination.

In cases involving the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fair Housing Act in which Judge Gorsuch authored the majority or concurring opinion, he almost always ruled against the plaintiff with a disability. Perhaps the most common thread uniting these opinions is Judge Gorsuch’s strictly textualist approach to interpreting laws. This approach leads him to frequently disregard legislative history and Congressional intent in favor of deciphering the “objective” meaning of the law’s text in a vacuum, ultimately resulting in very narrow interpretations of the protections guaranteed by federal disability rights laws.

For example, in Hwang v. Kansas State University (2014), the plaintiff, a professor who had been employed by the university for 15 years, requested to extend her 6-month medical leave for a finite period. Due to a cancer diagnosis and weakened immune system, she sought to avoid a flu epidemic that arose on campus. When her employer refused to make an exception to its 6-month leave policy, the plaintiff sued, alleging disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act. Judge Gorsuch found for the defendant employer on the grounds that, as a matter of law, a leave of more than 6 months was not a reasonable accommodation. In this opinion, Judge Gorsuch demonstrated a troubling view of disability accommodations in the workplace, implying that the plaintiff employee was seeking not to work and should therefore be funneled into the public benefits system rather than the workplace:

Ms. Hwang’s is a…problem other forms of social security aim to address. The Rehabilitation Act seeks to prevent employers from callously denying reasonable accommodations that permit otherwise qualified disabled persons to work—not to turn employers into safety net providers for those who cannot work.

Remarkably, Judge Gorsuch affirmed dismissal of the case prior to fact discovery, thereby precluding the plaintiff from the ability to present evidence. He also failed to engage in the individualized inquiry required in such cases, in conflict with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and four other circuit courts (in addition to a prior conflicting decision within the Tenth Circuit). An amicus brief on behalf of several disability rights advocacy groups requesting a rehearing referred to the decision as “unprecedented.”

Another standout case is Thompson R2-JSchool District v. Luke P. (2008), in which Judge Gorsuch articulated an extraordinarily low standard for educational benefit that is now under review before the U.S. Supreme Court in another case arising from the Tenth Circuit, Endrew F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist. Re-1. In Luke P., the hearing officer, administrative law judge, and the district court found for the student, noting that the district had failed to provide a free appropriate public education as demonstrated by the student’s inability to generalize the skills he learned at school to settings outside of school. These decisions were based on the notion that this level of minimal progress towards IEP goals was not enough to constitute a meaningful educational benefit under the IDEA. Judge Gorsuch disagreed:

[A] school district is not required to provide every service that would benefit a student if it has found a formula that can reasonably be expected to generate some progress on that student’s IEP goals…Rather, [the IDEA] much more modestly calls for the creation of individualized programs reasonably calculated to enable the student to make some progress towards the goals within that program.

In finding for the school district, Judge Gorsuch rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the purpose of the IDEA, as stated clearly by Congress, was to help students with disabilities achieve more meaningful progress that led to a greater possibility of independent living. Despite legislative history to the contrary, Judge Gorsuch noted that independence was not an outcome-oriented guarantee of the law. In November, along with a large coalition of disability advocates, The Arc submitted an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging this same low standard employed by the Tenth Circuit in the Endrew F. case. In another IDEA case, A.F. v. Espanola Public Schools (2015), where Judge Gorsuch found for the school district, the dissenting judge noted that the outcome “was clearly not the intent of Congress and…harms the interest of the children that IDEA was intended to protect.”

Judge Gorsuch has also demonstrated a narrow view of class actions, a crucial tool for individuals with disabilities to enforce their rights in court. For example, in Shook v. Board of County Commissioners of County of El Pas(2008), Judge Gorsuch affirmed the denial of class certification to a group of plaintiffs alleging that jail conditions for prisoners with psychiatric disabilities violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual treatment. In so finding, Judge Gorsuch reasoned that it would be too difficult to craft appropriate systemic relief for the class as a whole given the variety of psychiatric disabilities represented in the class.

These decisions are more than just abstract discussions of legal theories – they have real-life consequences for The Arc’s constituents. In particular, Judge Gorsuch’s effectively pro-school district stance has been devastating for students with disabilities and special education advocates in the Tenth Circuit. Advocates from AdvocacyDenver (a chapter of The Arc), noted that the Luke P. decision was “seismic” for students with disabilities in Colorado, leading school districts to believe that they had a champion in the Tenth Circuit. This dramatically changed their approach to IEP disputes and empowered them to act to the detriment of students with disabilities under the belief that they would almost always prevail in court. Overall, advocates from the chapter noted that the Tenth Circuit offers some of the weakest protections for students with disabilities and their families in the country and that Judge Gorsuch’s decisions on the IDEA have had deeply problematic results for special education advocates and students with disabilities in Colorado.

On the other hand, Judge Gorsuch, like The Arc, is a staunch opponent of physician-assisted suicide. While he has not yet addressed this issue in court, Judge Gorsuch authored a 2006 book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, in which he notes that: “[a]ll human beings are intrinsically valuable…any line we might draw between human beings for purposes of determining who must live and who may die ultimately seems to devolve into an arbitrary exercise of picking out which particular instrumental capacities one especially likes.” Among other reasons for his opposition, Judge Gorsuch links the practice to the history of societal devaluation of people with disabilities embodied by the eugenics movement, flagging the inherent risk for abuse the system poses for people with disabilities.

Judge Gorsuch’s views on this subject and his recognition of the inherent dignity of people with disabilities reflect an important area of common ground. The question is whether his jurisprudence will ever link this belief in inherent dignity with a robust protection of rights that is so crucial to the ability of people with disabilities to learn, work, and lead dignified lives in the community among their peers. During his tenure on the Tenth Circuit, the answer to this question has largely been no.

More information about Judge Gorsuch’s majority and concurring opinions relating to disability rights can be found here.

The Arc Responds to Florida Supreme Court’s Decision to Vacate Death Sentence for Freddie Lee Hall in Florida

Washington, DC – The Arc released the following statement following news that the Supreme Court of Florida reversed the circuit court’s order in the case Hall v. Florida, a death penalty case concerning the definition of intellectual disability (ID) that Florida uses in deciding whether an individual with that disability is protected by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia. With this decision Freddie Lee Hall will be taken off death row and his sentence will be reduced to life in prison. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins v. Virginia case that executing inmates with ID is unconstitutional as it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Today the Supreme Court of Florida showed its commitment to ensuring justice for individuals with intellectual disability. This decision is an affirmation of years of legal advocacy on behalf of Mr. Hall.

“With the original sentencing in Hall’s case Florida was violating the Supreme Court’s Atkins v. Virginia ruling and we are pleased to see justice finally being served. Our hope is that Florida’s decision will serve as guidepost to other states that have similar cases involving defendants with intellectual disability. While we are pleased with Florida’s decision, we also think of other individuals who were unjustly denied Atkins protections and sentenced to death, individuals like Warren Hill, executed in Georgia last year, despite the protections of the Atkins decision.

“The Arc remains committed to fighting for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and we will continue our legal advocacy work to make sure that the Supreme Court ruling on this issue is followed in jurisdictions across the country,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Arc has participated in a number of cases on this issue before the Supreme Court including Atkins v. Virginia. The Arc’s amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief was cited by the Justices in support of its ruling that the Constitution protects all defendants with ID. On December 23, 2013, The Arc submitted an amicus brief for the Hall v. Florida case.

The Arc advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including Down syndrome, Autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, Cerebral Palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of nearly 700 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.

The Arc Applauds Supreme Court Ruling Upholding Subsidies to Purchase Health Insurance under the Affordable Care Act

Washington, DC – In its 6-3 King v. Burwell decision, issued today, the U.S. Supreme Court held that federal tax subsidies are being provided lawfully in those states that have decided not to run the marketplace exchanges for insurance coverage. This is a huge win for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and people with disabilities throughout the country.

The case was brought by Virginia plaintiffs alleging that the ACA forbids the federal government from providing subsidies in states that do not have their own exchanges. These exchanges allow individuals without insurance to shop for individual health plans. Some states created their own exchanges, but others allowed the federal government to run them. Approximately 85% of individuals using the exchanges qualify for subsidies to help pay for coverage based on their income.

“Today’s Supreme Court ruling upholding the subsidies to purchase health insurance in the federal exchanges is good news for many Americans, including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This challenge could have weakened the law overall, threatening all the protections that people with disabilities gained in the landmark law. This ruling should end the effort to dismantle this law, and instead the focus should be entirely on effective implementation,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The ACA is important to people with disabilities. It expanded coverage and reformed insurance to end discrimination against people with disabilities and enhance access to health care. The private health insurance marketplaces allow individuals or small businesses to shop for coverage and potentially receive subsidies to help offset the cost of insurance. The subsidies are key to ensuring affordable coverage. The health insurance reforms, the protections from high premium increases or out-of-pocket costs, and the coverage of “essential health benefits”, including mental health care and rehabilitative/habilitative services and devices, help assure that people with disabilities have affordable health care that meets their needs.

The Arc advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of more than 665 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.

The Arc Responds to U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Hall v. Florida

The Arc released the following statement following news that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Freddie Lee Hall in the case Hall v. Florida, a death penalty case concerning the definition of intellectual disability (ID) that Florida uses in deciding whether an individual with that disability is protected by the Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins v. Virginia case that executing inmates with ID is unconstitutional as it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hall. The justices stated that Florida cannot rely solely on an IQ score to determine whether an inmate has ID.  Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that IQ tests have a margin of error and those inmates whose scores fall within the margin must be allowed to present other evidence. Additionally, Justice Kennedy modified the 2002 Atkins decision by adopting the term “intellectually disabled” and abandoning “mentally retarded,” which has previously been used by the court in its opinions.

“Today the Supreme Court reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring justice for individuals with intellectual disability. The clarification of the landmark ruling in Atkins v. Virginia will serve as a tool to ensure justice for individuals with intellectual disability who face the death penalty  in states across the country.  Disability advocates and legal experts across the country will look back to this decision for years to come.

“The Arc is committed to fighting for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and we will continue our legal advocacy work to make sure that the Supreme Court ruling on this issue is followed in jurisdictions across the country,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Hall case centered on whether the state may establish a hardline ceiling on IQ, refusing to consider whether anyone with an obtained IQ above that level may actually have ID, despite the fact that use of such a ceiling undermines the purpose of IQ testing and the professional judgment of the diagnostician, among other things.  In Hall, the Court was asked to address Florida’s decision to draw the line at an IQ of 70.  Based on the professional expertise of two leading professional organizations in the field, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), it is universally accepted that IQ test scores must be interpreted by taking into account the standard error of measurement that is inherent in IQ tests. That means that any IQ test score is best understood as a range, rather than a single score:  a score of 70, for example, is best understood as indicating that the person’s “true” IQ score is most likely between 65 and 75.

In addition to IQ testing, numerous expert evaluations documented Freddie Lee Hall’s disability.  Before the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins, a Florida trial court found that Hall had ID “all of his life”.  His family recognized his disability in early childhood and teachers repeatedly noted his intellectual disability.

The Arc has participated in a number of cases on this issue before the Supreme Court including Atkins v. Virginia.  The Arc’s amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief was cited by the Justices in support of its ruling that the Constitution protects all defendants with ID. On December 23, 2013, The Arc submitted an amicus brief for the Hall v. Florida case.

Through a two-year grant for $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), The Arc established the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD) which is addressing, among other critical issues, people with ID on death row and the importance of using an accurate definition for ID within courtrooms across America. NCCJD is creating a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), whose disability often goes unrecognized. Providing accurate, effective and consistent training for criminal justice professionals is critical to ensuring the safety of people with disabilities.

The Arc Urges U.S. Supreme Court to Protect Constitutional Rights of People with Intellectual Disability on Death Row

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Hall v. Florida, a death penalty case concerning the definition of “mental retardation” (or intellectual disability (ID) as it is now called) that Florida uses in deciding whether an individual with that disability is protected by the Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins v. Virginia case that executing inmates with ID is unconstitutional as it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Florida is clearly violating the Supreme Court’s Atkins v. Virginia ruling and the Court must reaffirm its commitment to the rights of people with intellectual disabilities in our criminal justice system. Freddie Lee Hall has an intellectual disability, and Florida’s effort to flaunt the professional standards on IQ testing to end someone’s life needs to be stopped by the highest court in our country. It is immoral and unjust,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Hall case centers on whether the state may establish a hardline ceiling on IQ, refusing to consider whether anyone with an obtained IQ above that level may actually have ID, despite the fact that use of such a ceiling undermines the purpose of IQ testing and the professional judgment of the diagnostician, among other things. In Hall, the Court has been asked to address Florida’s decision to draw the line at an IQ of 70. Based on the professional expertise of two leading professional organizations in the field, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), it is universally accepted that IQ test scores must be interpreted by taking into account the standard error of measurement that is inherent in IQ tests. That means that any IQ test score is best understood as a range, rather than a single score: a score of 70, for example, is best understood as indicating that the person’s “true” IQ score is most likely between 65 and 75.

In addition to IQ testing, numerous expert evaluations have documented Freddie Lee Hall’s disability. Before the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins, a Florida trial court found that Hall had ID “all of his life”. His family recognized his disability in early childhood and teachers repeatedly noted his intellectual disability. The lower court records also include findings of severe and violent abuse of Hall during his childhood.

The Arc has participated in a number of cases on this issue before the Supreme Court including Atkins v. Virginia. The Arc’s amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief was cited by the Justices in support of its ruling that the Constitution protects all defendants with ID. On December 23, 2013, The Arc submitted an amicus brief for the Hall v. Florida case.

Through a two-year grant for $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), The Arc is developing the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability. This project is creating a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, whose disability often goes unrecognized. Providing accurate, effective and consistent training for criminal justice professionals is critical.

Disability Case at the U.S. Supreme Court – What You Need to Know

Supreme Court of the United StatesEarlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Hall v. Florida, a death penalty case concerning the definition of “mental retardation” (or intellectual disability (ID) as it is now called) that states may use in deciding whether an individual with that disability is protected by the Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins v. Virginia case that executing inmates with ID is unconstitutional.

Numerous expert evaluations have documented Hall’s disability.  One psychologist’s examination found organic brain dysfunction and severe cognitive impairment, possibly due to repeated head trauma; neuropsychological testing showing severe brain impairment.  Another psychiatrist found that Hall is chronically psychotic; that he suffered violent child abuse; has organic brain damage and is paranoid. The lower court records include findings of severe and violent abuse of Hall during his childhood.

The Hall case is the first case the Supreme Court has taken on the issue of the death penalty for defendants with ID since the Atkins decision, which indicates that there could be a further clarification of states’ responsibilities under that decision.  Specifically, the Hall case centers on whether the state may establish a hardline ceiling on IQ, refusing to consider whether anyone with an IQ above that level may actually have ID (despite the fact that such a ceiling violates the nature of the tests involved and the professional judgment of the diagnostician, among other things).  In Hall, the Court has been asked to address Florida’s decision to draw the line at an IQ of 70.

The Arc strongly believes that every individual with ID should be protected from the death penalty and applauds the Court’s decision to hear this case.  In the past, The Arc has participated in a number of cases on this issue before the Supreme Court including Atkins v. Virginia.  Participating in an amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief in the Atkins decision, The Arc’s  brief was cited by the Justices in support of its ruling that the Constitution protects all defendants with ID.  Since 2002, The Arc’s advocates have been actively involved in the implementation of the Atkins decision in the Federal and State courts across the country.

The Hall v. Florida case is not the only case pertaining to this issue in the news right now. Earlier this year, Warren Hill’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to halt his execution because he has ID was denied.  Hill’s lawyers filed a petition directly to the Supreme Court, stating that they had evidence proving Hill has ID.  However, in Georgia (where Hill was convicted), ID must be proven by the defendant “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the strictest standard in the country.

Many people in the disability community share The Arc’s belief that states should not be allowed to create a stricter or more limited definition of ID than the professionally accepted clinical definition of ID. To do otherwise allows the states to execute some people with ID while protecting others. This approach violates the intent of the Atkins decision.

The Arc will be closely following Hall v. Florida as it moves through the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014.

The Arc Responds to Warren Hill’s Appeal Denial by the Supreme Court

The Arc released the following statement following news that the United States Supreme Court declined to consider Warren Hill’s appeal to halt his execution because he has intellectual disability (ID). Hill’s lawyers filed the petition directly to the Supreme Court, stating that they had evidence proving Hill has ID. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins v. Virginia case that executing inmates with ID is unconstitutional. However, in Georgia (where Hill is on trial), ID must be proven by the defendant “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the strictest standard in the country.

“We are extremely disappointed that the Supreme Court has chosen not to accept Warren Hill’s appeal. The high court was the last chance for a man unjustly sentenced to death, and their inaction will cost Mr. Hill his life.  They failed to order a halt to the execution despite their prior ruling in Atkins v. Virginia that established that it is unconstitutional to execute an inmate with intellectual disability,” said Peter V. Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Arc, the nation’s largest civil rights organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), has been involved in this case through filing an amicus brief before the Supreme Court in earlier proceedings, and supporting Hill’s defense team through letters to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles and the District Attorney urging his sentence be commuted to life without parole.