In the wake of the tragic police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, as well as the deaths of police officers in Dallas and in Baton Rouge, the national debate around policing reform has been newly—and rightly—reignited.
But this is just one aspect of a broadly shared recognition that America’s four-decade-long experiment with mass incarceration has been a failure. We lock up a greater share of our citizens than any other developed nation, at an annual cost of more than $80 billion. We do little to prepare individuals behind bars for their eventual release, yet are surprised when two-thirds return to jail or prison.
Certain populations—including communities of color, residents of high-poverty neighborhoods, and LGBT individuals—have been particularly hard-hit. But all too rarely discussed is the impact the criminal justice system has on Americans with disabilities.
Over the past six decades, there has been a widespread closure of state mental hospitals and other facilities that serve people with disabilities—a shift often referred to as deinstitutionalization. Between 1955 and 1994 the number of Americans residing in such institutions dropped sharply, from nearly 560,000 to about 70,000. Deinstitutionalization is widely regarded as a positive and necessary development, but it wasn’t accompanied by the public investment needed to ensure the availability of community-based alternatives.
As a result, the United States has traded one form of mass institutionalization for another, with jails and prisons now serving as social service providers of last resort.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, state and federal prison inmates are nearly three times as likely—and jail inmates are more than four times as likely—to report having a disability as the nonincarcerated population.
One in five prison inmates have a serious mental illness. In fact, there are now three times as many people with mental health conditions in federal and state prisons and jails as there are in state mental hospitals.
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