Bioethics Blogs

Putting Justice Back in the Justice System: ‘It is time to stop viewing intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders as mitigating factors’

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STUDENT VOICES

By Alyssa Dolan

The dialogue on the imprisonment of those with intellectual development disorders (IDDs) has progressively grown silent. Crucial to this nonexistent discourse is the tendency of the justice system to criminalize the traits associated with such disorders – traits including tendencies to tune people out, to repeat actions and words, to have poor eye contact, to fail to follow directions.

In some past cases, defendants have been given improper representatives who are not knowledgeable about the disabilities and disorders faced by the individuals. This lack of understanding has led to detrimental actions on the part of the attorney: not making the jury aware of the mental capacity of the defendant or encouraging the defendant to plead guilty for probation only to be later sentenced to significant prison time instead. Among these situations of misrepresentation is the inclination of disabled defendants to shield their disabilities to juries and judges.

These examples expose the ineptness of the criminal justice system as it fails to make it imperative to indicate to jurors and judges the existence of a disability or disorder. This information is crucial when gauging the autonomy and decisional capacity of defendants in order to evaluate their actions. Once these actions are evaluated, the incompetence of the criminal justice system is expanded into the sentencing of such individuals. The failures of the system are currently being demonstrated in the case of a 22 year-old Virginia man with autism and an IQ of 69, Reginald “Neli” Latson.

In 2010, Neli was waiting for a public library to open in his town so he could return a book when a woman saw him and called the police citing that he looked ‘suspicious.’ When Neli refused to give the responding officer his name and attempted to leave, the officer pepper sprayed Neli – resulting in a scuffle, a subsequent charge on Neli for assault on a law enforcement officer, and a sentence of ten years in prison even though he had no prior criminal record.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.