• Justice or Injustice? Intellectually Disabled Suspects and the Legal System

    This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the graduate students in my Psychopathology course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Mental Health.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular class of mental disorders.


    Justice or Injustice? Intellectually Disabled Suspects and the Legal System by Skyee Gibson

    The question I pose is this – should persons with intellectual disabilities be tried under the same laws as able-minded Americans? This topic sparks a great debate among politician, lawyers and those working in the legal arena. Before we delve into the literature, I want to reiterate this post is not about the crime committed; it is simply about the relationship between persons with intellectual disabilities and the judicial system. Are they treated fair and equitable?

    To begin with we must define intellectually disabled (ID). There are several definitions available for use but I will use the current definition listed by the DSM-5. Intellectual disability is defined as a “significant sub average intellectual functioning that includes a significant limitation in adaptive functioning and usually occurs before the age of 18 years. This disability affects persons during the developmental stages of learning and has a major impact on the following skills: communication and interaction with peers and family, the ability to live independently and function productively in society.

    Persons with ID are more likely to commit a crime, be charged with a crime and prosecuted for a crime. They are also more likely to plead guilty to a crime. The injustice is largely due to a breakdown in the infrastructure of the judicial system. In some cases, persons with intellectual disabilities are never identified as having a disability, there is no special card or bracelet that identifies a disability and in many cases intellectual disabilities are not visible to the untrained.

    How does the judicial system define and identify an intellectual disability? Well, it really depends on the state, the IQ tests administered and the mental and emotional state of the accused. The first concern is the actual identification of an intellectual disability. Many persons with intellectual disabilities go to great lengths to hide their disability and are unable to share pertinent information related to their disability. The second concern involves the variation in test scores used across the United States to identify a suspect who is intellectually disabled. A score of 70 on an IQ test is the magic score used by psychologists to determine an intellectual disability. Courts across the United States are holding fast and steady to the IQ cut score of 70. However; the author Pete Aldous believes, “The IQ tests have a margin of error, which should indicate a range of scores versus one single score.” This phenomenon is due to error in the administration of an IQ test. The more frequently you take an IQ test the higher you score because of familiarity with the test. IQ tests should be reviewed periodically for updated score standards. The reason is simple, prior exposure to intelligence tests and maybe even a smarter America can influence IQ test scores.

    However, what does this really mean in terms of numbers? Cloud and colleagues say that, “We cannot determine the true number of suspects arrested, interrogated, convicted and incarcerated each year,” but a best guess estimate is close to 200,00 intellectually disabled inmates are imprisoned each and every year in the United States.

    Navigating through the judicial system is tough for people without a disability. Imagine what it is like for someone with a major intellectual disability who may lack the social skills and mental aptitude to function in a prison environment. This is further compounded by the severity of the disability and if the disability is visible. Therefore, we have someone who is unable to identify his or her disability, does not understand the legal process and often says whatever he/she needs to say to survive.

    Persons with intellectual disabilities are more likely to be assaulted in prison. They are very naïve and they do not understand the life and death situations presented in prison or the consequences associated with them. Society believes that we know the difference between right and wrong and when you commit a crime you should be penalized for that crime. But what if we blur the lines of justice with a limited intellectual capacity? Does that person understand their crime the same way we do? Can we hold them accountable for their crime? And where does that accountability stop… at death?

    The system designed to protect persons with intellectual disabilities have created an arena of confusion in the diagnosis and identification of persons with disabilities. Persons with intellectual disabilities are more likely to confess to a crime that they did not commit, they are more likely to please persons of authority, and they are unable to comprehend the culpability of their confession and their personal capabilities in committing a crime.

    Much of the responsibility falls in the hands of the legal aid attorney. Who is often overworked, underpaid and underqualified to identify and make an accurate disability diagnosis. So what must happen in the judicial system? We must advocate for change. We must educate police officers, intake officers and others about asking the right questions to identify a person with an intellectual disability. I believe we must also employ advocates that are familiar with the judicial system and have expertise in dealing with persons with disabilities.

    Category: Mental HealthPoliticsPsychologyTeaching


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com