Bill Aims To Better Help Incarcerated People With Disabilities

By Courtney Buble | August 23, 2023, 10:34 PM EDT ·

In a new piece of legislation, two Democratic lawmakers are seeking to provide more assistance and resources for people with disabilities who are in local, state and federal jails and prisons.

Reps. Deborah Ross of North Carolina and Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania, who are both members of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced the Protection and Advocacy for Criminal Legal Services Act on Tuesday.

The bill would authorize the attorney general to establish a grant program to better assist protection and advocacy systems — federally funded and state and territory-run programs that advocate for people with disabilities— for those in prisons and jails.

Protection and advocacy systems "lack funding and resources to properly support people with disabilities who need assistance navigating the legal system," according to a press release from the lawmakers. "People with disabilities are highly overrepresented in the criminal justice system — making up 15% of the U.S. population but 40% of state prison populations," the release says, citing data from the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative.

Specifically, the grant money could be used to find out if local, state or federal law enforcement officers violated the rights of those with disabilities under arrest. Other uses could include providing information to people with disabilities and law enforcement personnel and advocating for "safe and humane conditions confinement," according to the bill's text.

A protection and advocacy system can be eligible for a grant under this bill if it is in compliance with the requirements of the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000.

The bill would also require annual reporting requirements for those that receive the grants.

If passed, the bill would see $7 million authorized for fiscal 2024, $9 million for fiscal 2025, $11 million for fiscal 2026, $13 million for fiscal 2027 and $15 million for fiscal 2028.

The National Disability Rights Network, which is the nonprofit membership organization for protection and advocacy systems, endorsed the bill. 

Diane Smith Howard, managing attorney for institutions and community integration at the organization, told Law360 on Wednesday, "People with disabilities are incarcerated for many reasons that have nothing to do with punishment for criminal behavior and often everything to do with a society that is not prepared to meet their needs."

This could be for a lack of community-based treatment or supportive housing, for example, she said.

Moreover, the DOJ Civil Rights Division "is active in supporting the rights of people with disabilities in prisons and jails, but they cannot provide systematic oversight, monitoring,and investigation of the over 1,500 state prison and over 3,000 local jails in which people with disabilities are incarcerated around the country," which is where the protection and advocacy offices come in, said Rebecca Shaeffer, an attorney for the group.

However, these facilities are lacking in resources in order to "tackle the scale of abuses to which people with disabilities are subject in jails and prisons, and gaps in protection upon release," Shaeffer added.

The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

However, last month, at an event for the 33rd anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said the DOJ was celebrating the progress accomplished. "One area that demands greater attention and focus, however, is the interaction between people with disabilities and the criminal justice system," she said.

She added, "Through vigorous enforcement of the ADA, strong partnerships with the disability and criminal justice communities and racial justice advocates and greater awareness of the devastating effect of stigma and low expectations, we can fulfill the promise of the ADA to achieve true inclusion and equality for people with disabilities."

--Editing by Karin Roberts.

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