Justice Department Commemorates the 33rd Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act Highlighting Efforts to Address the Criminalization of People with Disabilities

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division hosted a program yesterday to commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and to highlight the need to address unnecessary interactions between people with disabilities and the criminal justice system. Passed into law in 1990 with broad bipartisan support, the ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities, including in workplaces, businesses, and in state and local government services, including law enforcement and corrections.

The program, entitled “Addressing the Criminalization of People with Disabilities,” focused on the department’s efforts to combat disability discrimination that leads to needless criminal justice involvement, particularly with respect to people with mental health disabilities and substance use disorders. The program called attention to the need for more community-based services to address behavioral health needs, rather than deploying the criminal justice system.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke opened the program with remarks detailing the interactions of millions of people with disabilities with the criminal justice system and the Justice Department’s efforts to fight for greater access and greater equity for people with disabilities. The program also featured recorded remarks from Attorney General Merrick B. Garland who acknowledged the progress that has been made toward fulfilling the promise of equal justice and opportunity for people with disabiltities, but that much more work remains.  

“The anniversary of the ADA gives us the opportunity to recognize and celebrate the enormous impact the law has had on the lives of people with disabilities – and on our entire country. It also gives us an important opportunity to recognize the many barriers that remain, and to recommit ourselves to breaking them down,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “We know that far too often, law enforcement officers are forced to respond to individuals experiencing challenges that do not have a law enforcement solution. This can contribute to significant harm to people experiencing mental health crises, as well as to needless incarceration or institutionalization of such people. At the same time, it puts a great strain on the law enforcement officers who are forced to fill in the gap where community services have failed. The Justice Department is working to address these challenges through our enforcement of the ADA.”

“We are committed to using our federal civil rights laws to address the unnecessary use of law enforcement and criminal justice responses to people with disabilities when our community service systems fail them,” said Assistant Attorney General Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “To fully realize the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we must confront issues that lie at the intersection of disability rights, criminal justice and racial justice. Simply put, people with disabilities should receive the services they need rather than being treated as criminals.” 

Equal Justice Initiative Executive Director Bryan Stevenson provided a keynote speech regarding the continued systemic work that must be done to address the criminalization of people with disabilities. He also answered questions posed by Assistant Attorney General Clarke regarding ways to continue to advance progress for people with disabilities.

“When you look at the landscape now where we have one of the largest prison populations in the world, there is no community that has been more severely impacted than people with disabilities,” said Director Stevenson. “Our jails and prisons are filled with people with behavioral health disabilities that we have not addressed and it is an urgent and necessary issue to take on. While we can accept and acknowledge that much has been gained, there is tremendous work that needs to happen with regard to this topic of criminizalizing people with disabilities.”

Finally, the program included a panel discussion featuring Former Pennsylvania Secretary of Public Welfare Estelle Richman, NYC Justice Peer Initiative Executive Director Helen Skipper and Civil Rights Division attorneys. The panel addressed various reasons for reliance on the criminal justice system to respond to people with disabilities and explored potential solutions.

The Department is also actively enforcing the ADA in this context, and recently found violations of the ADA by police departments in Louisville and Minneapolis for relying on law enforcement as the primary and generally sole responders to behavioral health calls, even when safety does not require a law enforcement presence.

For more information about the ADA, please visit www.ada.gov or call the department’s toll-free ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 (TDD 800-514-0383). For more information on the Civil Rights Division, please visit www.justice.gov/crt.


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