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People With Developmental Disabilities in the Criminal Justice System: A Review Essay

NCJ Number
Joan Petersilia Ph.D.
Date Published
14 pages
This paper reviews the body of knowledge on offenders and crime victims with developmental disabilities (DDs) and what should be done by the criminal justice system to address their needs.
When persons with DDs enter the criminal justice system, either as victims or as alleged offenders, it is unlikely they will be able to obtain due process and fairness, and, as a result, the experience will be dehumanizing. Victims with cognitive disabilities will usually be considered incompetent to bear witness to their own victimization. For alleged offenders, they may fail to comprehend their Miranda rights and falsely admit to crimes they did not commit in order to please authority figures. If convicted, there are few diversion programs that can accommodate their special needs. Officials believe the problem is likely to worsen over the next several years due to a number of factors. First, more juveniles of all intellectual abilities are choosing to commit crime, particularly minority youth, who have the highest rate of mental retardation/DD. Second, the overall trend toward deinstitutionalizing large numbers of MR/DD persons has led to an increase in the number of such persons who live on the streets or in shelters. Third, the Welfare Reform Law enacted in August 1996 substantially reduced the number of children with disabilities receiving benefits. Finally, diversion programs are not widely available in many States, and recently passed mandatory sentencing laws ensure that many offenders with MR/DD will be jailed or imprisoned. The public must be made more aware of the plight of people with MR/DD. New laws are needed that would entitle victims with DD distinctive legal protections from abuse as well as special accommodations in court. There is also a need for greater education for those who work with the disabled. Criminal justice agencies should contract with a legal advocate to assist persons with MR/DD who are arrested, prior to being formally questioned by police personnel. 36 references