Feature Issue on Engaging Communities Underrepresented in Disability Research

Criminal Justice: Why Is This Happening?


Beverly Frantz is director of the Criminal Justice Project at Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She may be reached at beverly.frantz@temple.edu

Roger Stancliffe is a senior research associate at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. He may be reached at stan0185@umn.edu.

Acknowledgments: Debbie Robinson, Dylan Cooper, Pamila Lew, Regina Sisneros, James Meadours, Brian Abery

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), particularly those from minoritized groups, are involved with the criminal justice system more than most others. They are sometimes victims of crime, and at other times are suspected of causing crimes. They are four times as likely to be victims of violent crime, and four to six times as likely to be victims of sexual violence. The data show that people with IDD who are Hispanic are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than people with IDD who are either Black or Non-Hispanic White. Only 5% of people with IDD who are crime victims receive the money they qualify for to help them recover. Law enforcement professionals need training in how to interact with people who have IDD.

Critical research questions in the area of criminal justice include learning how many people with IDD are in institutions instead of prison, and how many have been found guilty of crimes they did not commit. We also need basic facts about people with IDD who are in prisons, such as their ages, their race or cultural background, and why they are there. Researchers should also look into how education about healthy sexuality and making connections with others can help. It may reduce the chances of people with IDD becoming involved with crime as either victims or offenders. We also have to learn how to better care for crime victims with disabilities who come from minoritized groups.

A stylized photo of courthouse steps and columns, with hues of orange and red overlaying.

Research shows that people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDD) encounter the criminal justice system as victims, alleged offenders, or people convicted of a crime at a higher rate than the general population. According to a November 2021 Bureau of Justice Statistics report , violent crime against people with disabilities occurred at a rate almost four times the rate for people without disabilities. Research also tells us that people with intellectual disability (ID) experience sexual violence between four and six times the rate of individuals without disabilities. People with cognitive disabilities, including IDD, had the highest rate of victimization among disability types. The rate of violent victimization against people with disabilities who are Hispanic was higher than the rate for people with disabilities who are Black and those who were non-Hispanic white, according to the data. Other research, although limited, suggests that people with intellectual disability are overrepresented in the jail and prison population.

And so, we have to ask ourselves, why is this happening? How many people with IDD, including those from historically marginalized groups, are placed in state residential facilities in lieu of prison, and how many have lost their rights through this process? How many have been incarcerated who were not guilty, or who were manipulated by others and may have confessed to something they didn’t do? How do we identify people with IDD who are outside the disability service system but who are in the criminal justice system? Research hasn’t yet addressed these questions to the extent that would help us develop effective answers and, ultimately, interventions. And there is a similar, yawning gap in awareness about support services, specialized courts, appropriate and informed practices and alternatives to police and criminal justice involvement when people with IDD encounter the system.

We need to explore how culturally-informed protective factors, from social inclusion and employment to better education about healthy sexuality, will reduce the likelihood that people will become victims or offenders. Research shows that individuals with ID with less knowledge about sexuality are at greater risk of sexual abuse, so proactive research and education in this area is essential. Unfortunately, education is frequently provided only after an incident occurs. Too often, lack of knowledge about basic terms and body parts can make a legal case fall apart, leaving perpetrators to strike again.

As professionals, particularly researchers, we, too, need to be more comfortable investigating the role sexuality and sexual violence play in the lives of people with disabilities. We need to understand cultural differences in the way victims with IDD and their families report crimes, and whether any action is taken as a result.

We must support people with IDD from historically marginalized communities to learn about and access victim compensation programs. Fewer than 5% of victims with disabilities received benefits from these programs, according to the Report on the 2012 National Survey on Abuse of People with Disabilities by the Disability and Abuse Project at Spectrum Institute. These programs must also be modernized to allow for categories of expenses specific to victims with disabilities.

We also need to better support victims in the aftermath of crimes, responding in a culturally responsive way that is most useful depending on their specific disability.

Sexual offenses and theft or robbery are common charges brought against people with ID and, many times, this stems from their desire for friends. A group of people will say to an individual with ID, “Hey, want to hang out with us?” And when the individual readily agrees, someone in the group will say, “We’re going into this store to get some beer and buy stuff. You just hang outside and give us a signal if the police walk by.” The person with ID may not question why, or will believe the group’s story that they are under 21 and just want to buy some beer. Instead, they are robbing the store. And in the course of that robbery, somebody might be hurt. And just because that person with ID was standing outside and was the lookout, that person is going to be charged the same as the others. Now, will his disability be a mitigating factor? That depends on what happened, and in what state it happened, but often, he goes to jail.

People with ID often have difficulty remembering time and place, making a chronological description of a crime difficult and they can be confused if professionals interrupt. We need to let them tell everything in their own way, and then ask questions at the end. Remember, someone with ID who's just been traumatized, for example, might respond more fully if we ask what they were doing when the crime happened, rather than what time it happened.

Just as there are critical differences in how victims with IDD perceive crime and trauma, there are differences based on the individual’s cultural and racial characteristics. For example, I (Beverly) once counseled a young woman of Russian descent who was sexually assaulted and was offered the services of a local rape crisis center, but she vehemently declined. That center was staffed with a large number of volunteers from the tight-knit Russian community, and she feared that word of the assault would reach her father. Instead, access to a crisis center in another county was arranged to get her the services she needed.

Interagency cooperation like this helps all involved in working out a plan to benefit the person who has been victimized, as does considering religion, culture, and ethnicity.

Fairness in Justice

When people with IDD are accused or convicted of crimes, there are critical areas of need throughout the justice process.

As Pamila Lew mentions in her article in this issue, the criminal justice and disability fields urgently need to address the unacceptably long wait times in determinations of competency to stand trial. While they wait, people with disabilities who are accused of crimes are held in local jails or in secure psychiatric or IDD facilities indefinitely. The disability field lacks basic demographic and other information about who is there, for how long, and for what reasons. This information is fundamental to determining steps toward reform.

Working together with self-advocates, people with disabilities from a range of communities and cultural backgrounds, and direct support professionals, researchers can make a difference in reducing the risk of sexual violence and unjust incarceration by bringing more culturally-informed data and understanding to the criminal justice sector. We can, and must, change laws, policies, procedures, and training practices for criminal justice personnel. Educating disability service providers about the criminal justice process, trauma informed care, culturally informed and best practices for supporting people already involved in the criminal justice system is essential. Researchers, as well as criminal justice, disability, and victim services professionals must recognize that different intervention and support approaches may be required.