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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

NCIL Youth Caucus Statement on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015

Having a disability is not a crime; however, it can often be treated as such. It is evident that police departments do not know how to interact with the disability community—especially those with psychiatric disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and the Deaf/Hard of Hearing community. When referring to people with disabilities, police officers commonly use rhetoric such as “aggressive,” “threatening,” “deteriorating mental state,” “combative,” “dangerous,” and “demonic.” These stereotypes have been the basis of overt police brutality, institutionalization, and courts declaring police murders of people with disabilities as justified homicides. The NCIL Youth Caucus is committed to fight against systems that criminalize people on the basis of disability.

In addition to this stigma, people with disabilities are denied appropriate accommodations that would allow them full participation in society. The Bazelon Center for Mental Health found that, people who lack access to essential services and basic supports and people with serious mental illness are more susceptible to arrest, often for minor infractions associated with unemployment, homelessness or their untreated disabilities. The Bazelon Center for Mental Health (2011) went on to say that, “for a variety of reasons (notably that the living arrangements to which state hospitals discharged people tended to be located where crime and drug use were rampant), substance abuse problems became commonplace, adding yet another risk factor for arrest.” The NCIL Youth Caucus supports The Sentencing Reform Act because it would have a direct impact on marginalized populations that are imprisoned on drug charges that are related to systemic issues such as homelessness or lack of community based programs. 

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 is one of the many pieces of legislation formulated by Congress to address criminal justice reform. If signed into law, this bipartisan bill would, among other things: reform mandatory minimums for drug offenses, reduce the three-strike mandatory life sentence to 25 years, broaden the safety valve for those charged with low-level drug offenses, and apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactively. For more details on the Sentencing Reform Act please see the resources below.

Currently, “an estimated 2,000,000 individuals with serious mental illnesses are booked into jails each year. . . [and] an even greater number of individuals who are detained in jails each year have mental health problems that do not rise to the level of a serious mental illness but may still require a resource-intensive response” (S. 993, 2015). Additionally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Prisoner Statistics Program reports that 60% of those in prisons are Black or Latino. Although the NCIL Youth Caucus supports the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, we are urging society and advocates to understand and address the fact that individuals living at the intersections of race and disability are among the most vulnerable to being treated unfairly within the criminal legal system.

There is an overwhelming silence about criminal justice reform on part of most resourced disability organizations. This inaction on issues of criminal justice reform is both disappointing, and detrimental. Our people are being abused, institutionalized, and murdered. Those who remain silent about these injustices are complicit in perpetuating the problem. Similarly, we encourage non-disability civil rights organizations to always be inclusive of disability rights in criminal justice reform efforts. Our combined efforts will enhance our justice system and the lives of all of those in our communities.

Signed,

The National Council on Independent Living Youth Caucus

More Information on the Sentencing Reform Act:

More Information on People with Disabilities and the Criminal Justice System:

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