By: Jaidyn Rumpca

The United States carceral system is a place that many regard as out of sight and out of mind. In reality, people of all backgrounds are affected by the injustices of our so-called justice system. Racial minorities, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, people from low-income communities, people with disabilities, and individuals at the intersection of these communities are particularly at risk. For people with cognitive disabilities, there is a serious risk of exploitation and abuse. A March 2021 report from the United States Department of Justice suggests that approximately twenty-three percent of people incarcerated in federal prisons suffer from a cognitive disability.

Cognitive disabilities include medical conditions that impact one’s ability to problem-solve, read, write, and pay attention. Because of the nature of cognitive disabilities, the problems that manifest in prisons often start with the school-to-prison pipeline. Many public schools have insufficient resources for children with cognitive disabilities. For instance, public schools commonly have overcrowded classrooms, a fast-paced learning environment, lack of special education resources, and have a school resource officer presence. Students who do not have their educational needs met are at a higher risk for disengagement, dropout, and discipline, which can lead to future exposure to the criminal justice system.

People with cognitive disabilities frequently face hardship outside of the classroom as well. For example, policing practices often do not take into account the unique needs of people with cognitive disabilities. People with cogitative disabilities may not understand their rights during interactions with law enforcement, may not understand law enforcement’s commands, may feel overwhelmed during encounters with law enforcement, and may make false confessions out of confusion. In some cases, confusion and miscommunication have led to unfounded excessive use of force against people with cognitive disabilities.

Once behind bars, individuals with cognitive disabilities commonly find that their needs are not met again. They may even be subjected to increased discipline and abuse because of their disabilities. People with disabilities statistically experience more physical and sexual abuse behind bars than people without disabilities. They may struggle with following directions, which can result in more discipline and a lengthened sentence when jail and/or prison staff do not know how to properly accommodate and communicate with them.

The current treatment of people with cognitive disabilities in the criminal justice system calls for a restorative justice approach. First, however, change must begin in public schools. Public schools need adequate funding for special needs programs and resources, and police should be removed from schools to weaken the school-to-prison pipeline. Next, policing practices must be adjusted to take into account that they may be encountering someone with a cognitive disability. This can be done through sensitivity training, training on the signs of cognitive disability, and eliminating police presence when responding to certain calls, such as mental health crises. Similar training should be implemented for state and federal actors who work in jails and prisons. Finally, the system as a whole must take steps towards implementing restorative justice measures, like focusing on rehabilitation and connecting people with resources, rather than taking purely punitive measures.

Jaidyn is currently a 2L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. After law school she hopes to pursue public defense and post conviction work. Her areas of legal interest include criminal justice system reform and immigration law. Her personal interests include traveling abroad, hiking, and spending time with friends and family.