By Leigh Anne McKingsley, Senior Director, Disability & Justice Initiatives
I had just completed my master’s in social work when The Arc hired me in 1994 to oversee a national project educating criminal justice professionals about safe interactions with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). That initial one-year project led to my life’s work of exposing the injustices facing people with IDD in the criminal justice system, both in the US and globally.
In 1997, I presented a paper at a symposium hosted by what is now known as The President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. The paper laid out key issues and recommendations, including the need for a national center or clearinghouse dedicated to people with IDD in the criminal justice system. This dream was realized in the fall of 2013 when The Arc created the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability® (NCCJD) supported by funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA).
The Arc’s NCCJD is the first national center focused on justice-involved people with IDD. We continue to be the preeminent center in the US that advocates with and for victims, witnesses, suspects, defendants, and incarcerated persons with IDD who are involved at all stages of the criminal justice process. NCCJD is a bridge between the disability and criminal justice communities that pursues safety, fairness, and justice for people with IDD, especially those with hidden disabilities and in marginalized communities.
As we celebrate 10 years of advocacy, we reflect on where we were a decade ago, where we are today, and our goals for the future.
The Early Years
During the mid-90s, few attorneys, judges, and court personnel were versed in the requirements of Title II of the ADA. Typical law enforcement training was often dated, and IDD was only briefly mentioned in training on mental health or crisis intervention. Seeing a need, we created the first law enforcement training on IDD in 1998 for chapters of The Arc and other advocates.
In 2013, the need for this type of training gained national attention after the death of Ethan Saylor. Ethan, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome, died from a fractured larynx when he was placed in a chokehold by an off-duty police officer for not paying for a second showing of a movie.
Around that time, The Arc received funding from BJA to launch NCCJD and develop Pathways to Justice (Pathways), a unique, comprehensive, community-based program that seeks to improve access to justice for people with IDD. The funding also allowed NCCJD to provide no-cost Pathways training to communities across the US.
Understanding that training in and of itself can never address root issues, Pathways includes forming a Disability Response Team (DRT) that is created before the training occurs and is there long after the training ends. DRTs are multi-disciplinary teams made up of local law enforcement, legal professionals, victim service professionals, persons with IDD, and other IDD professionals or advocates. DRTs proactively build collaborative responses and reach agreed-upon goals to support the needs of people with IDD in the community who are justice-involved.
NCCJD’s other work has included hosting webinars and developing publications that provide valuable insight into issues that are not being addressed elsewhere. These groundbreaking white papers, handouts, and one-pagers touch upon critical areas of the criminal justice system, including tips for law enforcement and attorneys when serving people with IDD, know-your-rights information, resources for victims of crime, and materials on competency to stand trial.
Continuing the Movement
Today, Pathways to Justice remains one of the few IDD-specific programs in the US. It has reached over 2,000 stakeholders in over 12 states and has created Disability Response Teams around the country, creating sustainable change.
Through NCCJD’s information and referral services, we support victims and suspects/defendants with IDD and professionals in need of information, support, or training. We also created an online Community of Practice for The Arc’s chapter network to discuss issues in their community and hear from people with IDD and experts on timely issues, including funding opportunities.
The national center has even expanded internationally. In 2015, NCCJD began collaborating with leading experts worldwide on IDD and criminal justice. Our work with the Access to Justice International Hub involves over 20 countries. NCCJD staff learn from partners abroad, bring innovative ideas to the US, and share best practices. We have participated in several international webinars and presented at in-person conferences in England, Austria, and South Korea.
Some of NCCJD’s other projects and activities include:
- Providing expertise on national law enforcement training, including Crisis Response Intervention Training, a curriculum that seeks to bring more information about IDD into the standard crisis intervention team training.
- Collaborating with the Autism Society and the International Association of Chiefs of Police on the Home Safe project.
- Highlighting the epidemic of sexual violence against people with IDD through Talk About Sexual Violence and the Arizona Network on Sexual Violence and Disability.
- Partnering with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to produce timely materials for the field and co-host field-wide webinars.
- Providing legislative and policy analysis for chapters of The Arc and guidance regarding federal legislation.
- Interviews with national media and being featured on podcasts.
On the Horizon
NCCJD’s programmatic work must evolve and remain innovative as we seek to reform a criminal justice system that too often remains unaware of the unique needs of the IDD community. We are revisiting our strategic plan and the Pathways program to include the most up-to-date research, best practices in curriculum delivery, and effective ways to incorporate a lens of intersectionality by grounding the work in a disability justice framework. The updated Pathways will include a more robust technical assistance program focused on helping DRTs set achievable goals to begin a community’s path on sustainable change.
Our other priorities include:
- Continuing to provide nationwide information, referral, and support to people with IDD, families, advocates, and criminal justice stakeholders.
- Creating online tools, publications, and resources on in-demand topics.
- Providing evidence-based training to criminal justice professionals and expanding community-based alternatives through DRTs.
- Ensuring people with IDD are included in criminal justice related research.
- Increasing collaborations with partners, especially with regard to intersectional work.
- Ensuring meaningful criminal justice reform that prioritizes the ideas, needs, and voices of people with IDD through state and federal legislation.
- Identifying and supporting people with IDD to lead reform efforts.
- Advocating with people with IDD to become paid peer support specialists within criminal justice, including as co-trainers, in co-response, and other roles.
- Advocating for equal access to sex education for students with IDD to decrease unsafe sexual practices and increase healthy sexual practices.
- Increasing training for criminal justice professionals on the topic of sexual violence within the IDD community, especially sex crime investigators.
NCCJD’s rallying cry over the past decade can be summed up in one powerful word: inclusion. All people with IDD must be included in society in a way that is fair, just, and safe. NCCJD commits to continuing the movement for inclusion by breaking down barriers to inclusion and building pathways to justice for people with IDD and their families.
After 27 years working at the intersection of disability and criminal justice, I’ve learned that change doesn’t happen overnight. But small victories can build momentum and lead to substantial wins. I have seen wins through increased funding for research, supporting people with IDD to become trainers or co-trainers in national training for first responders, creating alternative response to crisis by prioritizing community-based responses, and building new collaborations and strengthening a unified solidarity internationally to further the movement in the US and beyond.
Together, we must believe and envision the world we hope to create with and for people with IDD, believing that both true inclusion and justice can and must prevail.
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