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Doing Justice? Criminal Offenders With Developmental Disabilities

NCJ Number
Joan Petersilia
Date Published
4 pages
The study discussed in this paper was an exploratory effort to understand the nature and extent of the problems people with developmental disabilities (DD) face in the California criminal justice system and what legislation and programs the State is formulating to address them.
Research methods included the use of personal interviews and existing quantitative as well as program data to explore the particular problems, their prevalence, and possible remedies. The study conclusions are preliminary due to the inadequacy of the data. Findings suggest that California's justice system is not equipped to handle people with DDs, and the 21 privately operated regional centers with which the State contracts to provide or coordinate services to this population often lack the resources and legal training to handle criminal offenders. Neither system, for the most part, has assumed responsibility for offenders with these disabilities. Change in the way people with DDs are managed in the criminal justice system will require State leadership. Some of the recommendations based on this study will require legislation. The highest priority must be given to requiring that developmentally disabled arrestees be given assistance prior to being questioned by police. Such advocates must understand both mental retardation and the criminal justice system. This change will also require continued training for police officers. California currently provides training on disability issues to new police recruits, but not much is included on mental retardation. Two other priorities mentioned by most of the study's interviewees are to increase justice-related education for people with developmental disabilities and their families and/or care providers, as well as to develop appropriate sentencing options, including community-based rehabilitation programs.