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People with disabilities over-represented in justice system

Nadia Ramlagan

Nationwide, people with disabilities are overrepresented both as victims of crime and those who are accused of crimes, and advocates believe the justice system could do much more to improve accessibility.

The system is not always fair to people with autism, cognitive disabilities and learning disorders, and visual and hearing disabilities.

Ariel Simms, president and CEO of the nonprofit group RespectAbility, said there are ways to better ensure disabled individuals are treated fairly, such as expanding access to hearing and visual aids or American Sign Language interpreters.

“When somebody is reaching out for legal support or assistance, we can really think through almost every process/environment ahead of time,” Simms pointed out. “And really think through how we’re going to make it more accessible.”

Last year, West Virginia lawmakers passed Senate Bill 232, which aims to improve data collection on disabilities in state correctional facilities and make recommendations for alternative placements for people with severe disabilities, rather than prisons or state psychiatric hospitals.

Simms noted there are resources in every state to help people working in the criminal justice system assist individuals with disabilities.

“Always the number one recommendation: Work with disability groups,” Simms emphasized. “There are also groups that work at the state and the local level that can also be really incredible resources.”

Health care access and safety for people with disabilities in West Virginia prisons continues to be a major issue. In an analysis of federal data by the West Virginia Center for Budget Policy and Priorities, from 2001 to 2018, West Virginia had the second-highest prison mortality rate in the nation.