Equal justice eludes people with developmental disabilities,
UC Irvine researcher finds

State Lacks Programs, Policies to Ensure Legal Access for
Developmentally Disabled

Irvine, Calif., August 3, 2000 — Among California's burgeoning prison population, an increasingly disproportionate number of people with developmental disabilities, including mental retardation, cerebral palsy and autism, is finding that equal justice often is out of reach, according to UC Irvine researcher Joan Petersilia.

Their rates of conviction and incarceration are higher than those of people without developmental disabilities; they are less likely to strike a plea bargain, to be granted probation or released on parole; and they're often abused in prison. What's more, police, courts and prisons are ill-equipped to handle them, and state regional centers that provide services for developmentally disabled people lack resources and training to deal with criminal offenders. As a result, those who run afoul of the law are likely to fall through the cracks of the criminal justice system.

"They are at a disadvantage at every step of the criminal justice system," said Petersilia, who is a professor of criminology, law and society in UCI's School of Social Ecology. Her research report, "Doing Justice? Criminal Offenders With Developmental Disabilities," is being released this week by the University of California's California Policy Research Center. It summarizes Petersilia's analysis of existing data and programs—both "woefully inadequate," she said—for criminal offenders with developmental disabilities.

While people with developmental disabilities comprise no more than 3 percent of the general population, they represent up to 10 percent of prisoners, according to Petersilia. Most of those arrested are mildly retarded, with an IQ between 50 and 70. Their disability often is not recognized by arresting officers; thus, they receive no special accommodation or assistance.

Unable to understand their rights, such as Miranda warnings, they often waive them. When questioned, they may give answers they think police officers want to hear. They are less able to assist in their defense in court and often make self-incriminating statements. In jail, they are often victimized by other inmates and, because they have a hard time understanding prison rules, may spend more time in segregation. This limits opportunities for work, "good behavior" credits and early release.

"Without special accommodations—such as legal advocates to help them understand police and court procedures—people with developmental disabilities are unable to access the justice system. Effectively, they receive harsher penalties," Petersilia said.

Compounding the problem is a lack of clearly defined oversight for services designed for mentally retarded people charged with crimes.

"There is no state agency that assumes this responsibility," Petersilia said. "It is nobody's problem, nobody's fault."

She noted that several of the state's regional developmental services centers—notably South Central Los Angeles, Valley Mountain (Stockton), Kern and San Diego—have initiated training programs and policies to assist those arrested. But receiving services from the Department of Developmental Services is voluntary, and Petersilia estimates that just 22 percent of eligible mentally retarded people avail themselves of the regional center services.

Real change in the way people with developmental disabilities are treated in the criminal justice system must begin with state leadership, Petersilia emphasized. Her recommendations include the following:

Training advocates in both mental retardation and criminal justice to assist developmentally disabled people before they're questioned by police.

Enhancing the authority and funding of regional centers to deal with mentally retarded offenders.

Educating mentally retarded people, their families and care providers to help them avoid criminal activities and protect themselves from criminal victimization.

Providing sentencing options appropriate for mentally retarded people, including community-based rehabilitation programs.

Petersilia is co-chair of the National Research Council's Law and Justice Committee and former president of the American Society of Criminology. A summary of her research findings is available on the California Policy Research Center Website at www.ucop.edu/cprc/PetersiliaMR-DD.html or by calling (510) 643-9328.