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Judicial Reform Could Mean Greater Attention on Mental Health, Disabilities

pic post_8-8-16When Eddie Ellis talks about the 15 years he spent in prison for manslaughter, he relives the frustration and depression of being punished while behind bars for actions he attributes largely to his dyslexia and epilepsy, and he wonders why he wasn’t treated for his disabilities instead of disciplined.

Criminal justice reform is on the agenda on Capitol Hill, with the House attempting to pass a bill by September and a growing number of senators supporting reform. The bill aims to grant more discretion to judges, which in turn would allow them to take into consideration when sentencing individuals, such as a person’s disability. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin says the measure addresses “the unique concerns of Americans with disabilities…Giving judges more discretion to sentence people based on the specific facts of a case will help judges consider the circumstances of people with disabilities.”

Ellis, now 41, said he was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child. Although he tried his best to make his mother proud after losing his father when he was little, he lagged behind classmates at school near Washington D.C. At age 16, he went to jail on a manslaughter conviction.

In prison, he said, he developed epilepsy but did not receive medical care during seizures. At one point, he was held in solitary confinement for 10 years. He served his time in several federal prisons in Ohio, Colorado and Virginia.

“I can’t say how it affected me medically but I can tell you that having epilepsy and dyslexia really made me feel like I couldn’t move forward (while in prison),” Ellis, said in a phone interview. “Nobody has told me or showed me how to really address or deal with it. So for a long time, I stayed depressed, frustrated and angry.”

According to White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, stories like Ellis’ are not uncommon in the current criminal justice system.

“Let’s face it. We need comprehensive [criminal justice] reform at the federal level,” Jarrett said during a recent White House forum on criminal justice. “People with disabilities are dramatically overrepresented in our nation’s prisons and in our jails.”

Jarrett said the Obama administration is making the legislation a priority.

“We want to do everything within our power to ensure that Congress moves forward on its responsibility to pass reforms by September,” she said.

According to a new report by The Center for American Progress, of the 2.2 million people behind bars, 32 percent of state and federal prison inmates and 40 percent of jailed inmates reported having at least one disability. People in state and federal prisons are nearly three times as likely to report having a disability as the non-incarcerated population, while those in jails are more than four times as likely.

Jennifer Mizrahi, president of nonprofit RespectAbility, whose goal is empowering people with disabilities, said one of the most common kinds of disability or impairment among incarcerated individuals is a cognitive disability —such as Down syndrome, autism, dementia, intellectual disabilities and learning disorders.

“The problem is that people can’t see it,” Mizrahi said. “It’s not like you’re a wheelchair user and somebody can see that you use the wheelchair. A cognitive impairment, people don’t see it so they sometimes think you’re faking it.”

This was the case with Freddie Gray, a young African-American in Baltimore who died in police custody, she said.

Gray had a cognitive disability from living in a home with lead paint, according to news reports. Disability advocates argue that lead poisoning diminished his cognitive function and increased aggression, ultimately putting him at a greater risk of attracting police use of force.

Rebecca Vallas, managing director of the Center for American Progress poverty to prosperity program, said Gray is not alone in suffering violent treatment by police based on misunderstandings related to mental health problems and other disabilities.

At the White House forum, Vallas cited a Ruderman Family Foundation report estimating that people with disabilities comprise one-third to one-half of all individuals who are victims of police-involved fatalities. One-quarter of the individuals fatally shot by police in 2015 were people with mental illness, according to an investigation by The Washington Post.

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