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Justice for people with disabilities

February 1, 2007
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Dear Mr. Edwards,

I am responding to your December 2006 editorial “Bench Strength,” concerning individuals with mental illness needing more support from state and federal legislators to ensure that they receive the appropriate care and humane conditions they deserve. You emphasized that judges should be allowed to play a more active role in solutions that will ensure that justice and human rights are maintained.

I absolutely agree with your views. There should be more active advocacy for equal justice. For years, the Developmentally Disabled Offenders Program has attempted to educate the legal system, social service providers, and law enforcement personnel about the importance of equal justice. While our program primarily serves individuals with developmental disabilities, our consumers very often have a mental illness as well.

Statistics have shown that mental retardation occurs in 3% of the general population. Yet studies estimate that approximately 4 to 9% of the offender population has mental retardation. There are many reasons for this troubling trend. There are distinct disadvantages faced by offenders with mental retardation at each stage of the criminal justice process. Because of their lack of knowledge regarding fundamental issues about persons with developmental disabilities, police and other law enforcement personnel very rarely recognize if a person has developmental disabilities, especially mental retardation.

Defendants with mental retardation often have poor judgment and do not fully understand the significance or the consequences of their actions. In an effort to be socially accepted, they may unknowingly involve themselves in criminal behavior. Moreover, because of their heightened suggestibility, they are more easily led into criminal activity in an effort to “fit in” or “be part of the crowd.”

The Developmentally Disabled Offenders Program develops alternatives to incarceration for consideration by the court for defendants with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities. We intervene at each stage of the criminal justice process to help overcome disadvantages faced by the developmentally disabled population. We create successful alternatives to incarceration called Personalized Justice Plans (PJPs), which identify community supports that emphasize the use of the least restrictive community-based alternatives, while holding individuals accountable for their behavior. When presented as a condition of probation, the PJP stabilizes the individual in the community. Our primary goal is to identify community supports that will address our clients’ criminal and social behavior. During our more than 20 years of existence, the program has become a nationally recognized expert on defendants with mental retardation.

The harsh truth is that our legal system is not sufficiently structured or educated to handle the unique needs of this population. However, there are those exceptional few who see a need for improvement, such as the Honorable Judge Rudolph N. Hawkins. Before retiring in 2006, Judge Hawkins attended our annual Equal Justice conference in 2003. After the conference, he asked if the Developmentally Disabled Offenders Program could adapt itself to provide services to juveniles on probation in Union County, New Jersey. The program was serving only adults because of significant budgetary restrictions. Yet he sought out the funds and support to allow us to provide specific counseling and vocational training to juveniles with intellectual disabilities on probation.

The program serves juveniles who may not be eligible for state services, due to the state's high eligibility criteria, nor are they eligible for mental health services, seeing as intellectual disability is considered their primary disability. These children would have fallen between the cracks. They are the ones who end up on the fast track to recidivism because they do not have the skills or supports needed to turn their lives around.

This is a prime example of what can happen when a judge decides to take a more dynamic role in the community. Judge Hawkins demonstrated the true strength that comes from being behind the bench.

Juan M. Santiago Director Developmentally Disabled Offenders Program The Arc of New Jersey