On April 18th, 2013, The New American Movement Team attended the New Jersey Equal Justice Conference in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Although the NAMPWD had received a brochure of light information regarding the conference, the overview little prepared us for the complexity of our justice system as it relates to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The Equal Justice Conference opened in the morning with a welcome from the President of the Arc of NJ, Thomas Bafuto, and an introduction by the New Jersey Commissioner of the Department of Human Services, Jennifer Velez. Commission Velez stressed the importance of resources for all individuals who have been part of the criminal justice system (past and present) as well as the ground breaking work of the Keynote panelists in an overlooked field.
The keynote panel was made up of individuals who work in a variety of fields for the disability community. Supportive housing, counseling, parole officers, sexuality and special education were represented across the panel. Despite the variety of backgrounds, each individual speaker emphasized the complete lack of knowledge of the criminal justice sector on how to serve people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. There are two main factors that contribute to this gap in service 1) many individuals who are incarcerated have not been officially diagnosed with a disability prior to their crime and 2) the complete stigma that surrounds many of the crimes committed.
The conference panel estimated that approximately four to ten percent of inmates are people with an intellectual or developmental disability. That being said, the stigma surrounding convicted individuals in this country far surpasses their needs as an individual with a disability. The panel then provided participants with the example of North Carolina in which the criminal justice department estimates that less than one percent of people currently in their prisons have a developmental or intellectual disability. This indicates to the disability community one of two things: either individuals in North Carolina are really terrible at estimating or that the stigma surrounding individuals convicted of crimes far outweighs their preexisting conditions.
The Equal Justice Conference provided the New American Movement Team to come face to face with the not-so-glamorous reality of the Justice System in the United States and culmination of stereotypes that face the disability community. Not only do people with disabilities face discrimination in our society, but people with disabilities who later commit crimes are faced with a mountain of stereotypes – which brings forth this question: does an individual’s past hinder their rights to supports? If people with disabilities are truly the most vulnerable population in this country, why are they subjected to the cruelest stigmatization and utter lack of resources if they commit a crime?
Equally, serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who have been convicted of a crime directly challenges the way in which we serve people with disabilities who have not committed a crime. The amount of resources provided to people with disabilities who live in the community are put in place as a comprehensive support plan to meet every need (employment, heath, etc) of a person with a disability; however, the second that a person fails to abide by our societal norms (and is convicted), their disability is no longer the first adjective used in describing them. It is plainly hypocritical to characterize individuals with disabilities by their disability only when it is convenient for their services and society’s expectations. Accompanied by society’s stereotypes of people with disabilities are ideas such as “they don’t have the capacity for that” or “they just won’t understand.” However, the moment an individual commits a crime their disability (as society understands it) immediately takes the back seat to their actions. How do we expect more of the criminal population with intellectual and developmental disabilities than we expect of those who have not committed a crime?
Working with and alongside the disability community in the New American Movements search for economic and social justice demands and compels us to expect more of our ability to view each other as a noun first (human), and place the adjective second.