Putting Justice Back in the Justice System: ‘It is time to defend the basic human rights of the voiceless individuals’

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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.

Like Neli, one out of 88 children in the United States has Autism Spectrum Disorder, a disorder associated with problems in communicating and social skills, in addition to having restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. According to special education professor and lawyer, Ruth Luckasson, author of “Mentally Retarded Criminal Defendants” (1985), additional characteristics of the intellectually disabled include a desire to please authority figures, a tendency to exude greater competence than one possesses, a promptness to take blame, an inability to linguistically express oneself, a short attention span, and a reliance on authority figures for solutions.

Neli’s noncompliance arising from autism was not fully comprehended by the enforcement officers, jurors, and judges. The officers were not informed sufficiently about his disorder and took his defiant behavior and lack of communication as pure criminal behavior, as opposed to a major result of his disorder.

Due to his prior violent actions against the enforcement officers, jail officers feared his potential interactions with other inmates and consigned him to solitary confinement, a cell where he was confined for 24 hours each day with limited contact. Neli’s mental health declined in solitary confinement, causing him to become suicidal and even attacking another guard within prison. This further attack placed him in a ‘crisis cell’ with no mattress and a hole in the ground as a bathroom.

Neli’s ordeal is just one of the countless cases where intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders are not adequately addressed, perpetuating into a spiral of contingent disasters. Juries, judges, and officers must be sensitive to the unique vulnerabilities of individuals with IDDs.

This case exemplifies the need for drastic reforms into the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system of the United States of America, in dealing with these vulnerable populations, cannot be a system where the only option is prison.

There is a reason “justice” is in the system’s name. With prison as the sole possibility, there will be no opportunity for treatment, and subsequently, for these individuals to reintegrate into society, especially if they have encountered solitary confinement.

While individuals with IDDs are capable of committing crimes, there should be differences in how they are held accountable for their actions; namely, they should in no way be treated and punished in a way that is equal to that of individuals who have the full mental competence to understand their actions.

By imprisoning individuals with IDD who are not wholly aware of their actions and subjecting them to conditions like solitary confinement, which experts like Peter Scharff Smith have shown to have debilitating consequences, we are subjecting these individuals to cruel and inhumane treatment. We are also stripping these individuals of the right to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being, the right to security and safety, and ultimately the right to life because frankly, once they are thrown into prison instead of a treatment facility that can rehabilitate them, the future of a life beyond that is bleak.

It is time to cease the growing tendency to disregard an individual’s mental capacity within the criminal justice system and to be proactive in generating beneficial alternatives to prison. It is time to defend the basic human rights of the voiceless individuals that are crying out for our help.

Alyssa Dolan FCRH ’16 is a Chemistry major with a Bioethics minor, and recently interned with the Brennan Center for Justice. She recently opened the first chapter of Special Olympics at Fordham, a club intended to integrate the Fordham community with the special needs community via sport and friendship.


  1. This is great. I work with persons with disabilities as part of my vocation. (Upstate New York.) It has been a long time since I heard anything on developmental disabilities in the media when a person is on the receiving end of the criminal justice system.

  2. Great article, Alyssa. So sad and so true. Because they usually have no money, they have no voice; they get an overwhelmed Public Defender. Because they usually don’t vote, they have no voice. The story of “Neli” was heart wrenching. And sad but true, some police officers don’t take the time to evaluate what is really going on with a person. Too quick to make an arrest. Not all, but enough of them.

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