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People with disabilities are overrepresented at all stages of the criminal justice system, from jail and prison to probation and parole. Compared to 15% of the United States general population, 40% of people in state prisons have a disability. While cognitive disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome, and learning disorders impact about 1/4 of incarcerated people, visual, hearing, and ambulatory disabilities are not uncommon, and individuals with these disabilities are often overlooked and subject to inhumane treatment.

On this page, the Prison Policy Initiative has curated all of the research that we know of about disability issues in the criminal justice system. For research on other criminal justice topics, see our Research Library homepage.

  • Effective Communication with Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Blind, and Low Vision Incarcerated People Tessa Bialek and Margo Schlanger, July, 2022“There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for prisoners with communication disabilities...policies and practices should acknowledge that they may be differently and/or multiply disabled in ways that affect their abilities and needs.”
  • Autism and the Criminal Justice System: Policy Opportunities and Challenges International Society for Autism Research, April, 2022“Inclusive research practices that meaningfully involve and partner with neurodiverse minority groups are needed to generate policy change in the criminal justice system, which excessively and disparately harms minority communities.”
  • Parole, Power, and Punishment: The Massachusetts Parole Board's Discriminatory Treatment of People with Mental Health Disabilities Northeastern University School of Law and Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee (MHLAC), March, 2022“The Board's Handbook lists factors that Board members can consider. No regulation, however, requires [their consideration]...the Board's largely arbitrary decision-making process allows for implicit bias that directly impacts those with disabilities.”
  • Student Arrests in Allegheny County Schools: The Need for Transparency and Accountability ACLU Pennsylvania, January, 2022“Black students with disabilities (served under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) accounted for 2.3% of total student enrollment, but 8.4% of students referred to law enforcement and 9.1% of students who were arrested.”
  • Disability's Fourth Amendment Jamelia Morgan, April, 2021“I discuss the ways in which disability mediates interactions with law enforcement and how Fourth Amendment doctrine renders disabled people vulnerable to policing and police violence.”
  • Disabilities Reported by Prisoners Bureau of Justice Statistics, March, 2021“Nearly 4 in 10 state prisoners (40%) and 3 in 10 federal prisoners (29%) reported having a disability.”
  • Grave Consequences: How the Criminalization of Disability Leads to Deaths in Jail Disability Rights Oregon, February, 2021“DRO's investigation found the following jail conditions put individuals with disabilities at risk of deadly harm.”
  • Prisons, Nursing Homes, and Medicaid: A COVID-19 Case Study in Health Injustice Mary Crossley, 2021“This essay highlights the experiences of Black people and disabled people, and how societal choices have caused them to experience the brunt of the pandemic. It will focus on prisons and nursing homes--institutions that emerged as COVID-19 hotspots.”
  • (New) Suicide in North Carolina Jails Disability Rights North Carolina, June, 2020“While the total deaths [in North Carolina jails] increased by 6% (from 46 to 49) between 2018 and 2019, jail suicides increased by 67% (from 12 to 20). In 2019, 41% of all jail deaths were deaths by suicide.”
  • The 'Olympic Hurdles' of Obtaining Federal Benefits for Inmates with Disabilities: A Study of Two Massachusetts County Jails Paywall :( Shahrzad Sajadi, November, 2019“Complicated application procedures [for governmental assistance] often result in the formerly jailed returning to prior lifestyles and rearrests. This study explores SSI/SSDI systems at two Massachusetts county jails.”
  • School Discipline, Safety, and Climate: A Comprehensive Study in New York City Center for Court Innovation, October, 2019“Students with disabilities, those who were chronically absent, and those who were economically disadvantaged were more likely to be arrested than their counterparts.”
  • The Construction and Criminalization of Disability in School Incarceration Jyoti Nanda, September, 2019“For students of color, instead of a designation that attracts more resources, disability is one of the mechanisms through which they are criminalized.”
  • Convictions of Innocent People with Intellectual Disability Sheri Lynn Johnson, John H. Blume, Amelia Hritz, June, 2019“The available data raise the disturbing likelihood that wrongful convictions of the persons with intellectual disability are not rare/”
  • Aging Out: Using Compassionate Release to Address the Growth of Aging and Infirm Prison Populations Vera Institute of Justice, December, 2017“This report examines the challenges states face in using compassionate release mechanisms to reduce these populations and related costs.”
  • Forensic Patients in State Psychiatric Hospitals: 1999-2016 National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, September, 2017“The results from this study indicate that, over a little less than two decades, states have seen an increase in the number of forensic patients who are present in their state hospitals.”
  • Prisoners in Ohio's Execution List Defined By Intellectual Impairment, Mental Illness, Trauma, and Young Age Fair Punishment Project, August, 2017“Ohio is poised to violate constitutional limitations by scheduling the executions of nearly a dozen individuals with devastating impairments, including mental illnesses, childhood abuse, and intellectual disabilities.”
  • Police, courts, jails, and prisons all fail disabled people Prison Policy Initiative, August, 2017“In 2015, police shot 124 people experiencing a mental health crisis. In 36% of those cases, the officers were called to help the person get medical treatment, and shot them instead.”
  • New report: Disabled people targeted by violence at high rates Prison Policy Initiative, July, 2017“Disabled people experience violent victimization at over twice the rate of people without disabilities.”
  • The Death Penalty in Five Florida Counties: Disproportionately Used Against Persons with Significant Mental Impairments Fair Punishment Project, January, 2017“These findings have raised a legitimate question as to whether Florida's capital punishment scheme-even one with a unanimous jury requirement- is capable of limiting application of the death penalty to the most culpable offenders.”
  • Crime Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009-2014 Bureau of Justice Statistics, November, 2016“40% of violence against persons with disabilities was committed by persons the victim knew well or who were casual acquaintances.”
  • Disabled Behind Bars: The Mass Incarceration of People With Disabilities in America's Jails and Prisons Center for American Progress, July, 2016“This report highlights steps policymakers can take to combat inappropriate and unjust incarceration and criminalization of people with disabilities, as well as steps to ensure appropriate and humane treatment of people with disabilities[.]”
  • Hate Crime Statistics, 2014 Federal Bureau of Investigation, November, 2015“Of the 5,462 single-bias incidents reported in 2014, 47 percent were racially motivated. Other motivators included sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, gender identity, disability, and gender.”
  • Callous and Cruel: Use of Force against Inmates with Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons Human Rights Watch, May, 2015“This 127-page report details incidents in which correctional staff have deluged prisoners with painful chemical sprays, shocked them with powerful electric stun weapons, and strapped them for days in restraining chairs or beds.”
  • The Cumulative Probability of Arrest by Age 28 Years in the United States by Disability Status, Race/Ethnicity, and Gender Erin J. McCauley, 2015“Estimates demonstrated that those with disabilities have a higher cumulative probability of arrest than those without. The risk was disproportionately spread across races/ethnicities, with Blacks with disabilities experiencing the highest risk of arrest.”
  • Should a one-point difference in I.Q. mean the death penalty? SCOTUS says no. Prison Policy Initiative, May, 2014“Supreme Court struck down Florida decision that Freddie Lee Hall was eligible for execution with an IQ score of 71, above the cutoff of disability at 70.”
  • Out and Down: The Effects of Incarceration on Psychiatric Disorders and Disability Jason Schnittker, Michael Massoglia, and Christopher Uggen, February, 2011“Incarceration has a robust relationship with subsequent mood disorders, related to feeling”
  • Crime Against People with Disabilities, 2007 Bureau of Justice Statistics, October, 2009“Age-adjusted rate of nonfatal violent crime against persons with disabilities was 1.5 times higher than the rate for persons without disabilities.”

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