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What Do Candidates Say About People with Disabilities in the Criminal Justice System?

Washington, Nov. 3 – In the past year, discussions of minorities in the criminal justice system frequently have appeared in the media. People with disabilities have a high rate of involvement with the criminal justice system, but often are left out of these conversations.

Approximately 32 percent of prisoners and 40 percent of jail inmates report having at least one disability, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report. These prisoners and inmates often have trouble receiving necessary accommodations while incarcerated, as well as any support needed to transition back into society after their release.

As outlined in RespectAbility’s report “Disability & Criminal Justice Reform: Keys to Success,” more than 750,000 people with disabilities are behind bars in America. This includes 140,000 who are blind or have vision loss, approximately the same number who are deaf or have significant hearing impairments and more than 200,000 who have mobility issues. The largest group, which includes more than half a million people, has cognitive impairments.

Once individuals with a disability are in the system, they face significant problems including access to counsel, a lack of accommodations, systematic abuse and solitary confinement. Many are abused behind bars. For example, many people who are deaf or blind are put in solitary for years as an “accommodation”; however, evidence shows that this can cause them to have significant mental health problems.

While 95 percent of incarcerated people will be released, the programs and communities waiting for them are not yet prepared to provide appropriate supports. Without these supports, two-thirds will end up being re-incarcerated, with new crime victims in their wake.

As part of the #PwDsVote Disability Questionnaire, the nonpartisan, nonprofit disability organization RespectAbility asked candidates running for president, senate or governor about their plans to address these issues. Every candidate was given an equal opportunity to respond and if they are not listed, it is because they declined to answer.

The quotes in this article are the candidates’ answers to question 10 in the gubernatorial/senate questionnaire: “Do you have a plan to ensure that individuals with disabilities receive services that would prevent them from being swept up into the criminal justice system, divert individuals with disabilities who are arrested to treatment options in lieu of jail where appropriate, receive needed accommodations in the criminal justice process and while incarcerated, and offer appropriate re-entry support to help individuals with disabilities leaving jails and prisons re-integrate into their communities and secure jobs?” This was adapted from a similar question, number 8, in the presidential questionnaire.

There were some plans that appeared in the answers from candidates on both sides of the aisle. Equal proportions (44 percent) of Democrats and Republicans who discussed criminal justice reform in their response to the questionnaire mentioned the lack of sufficient programs to help prisoners with disabilities successfully reenter society.

Check out the candidates’ full responses below:

Presidential Candidates
NOTE: Donald Trump declined to respond to the survey.

Former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton (D)
“I have made criminal justice reform a central platform of my campaign, and that includes making sure that our prisons and jails do not serve as a substitute for appropriate mental health care.

My criminal justice platform calls for prioritizing treatment and rehabilitation for low-level and nonviolent drug offenders. Over half of prison and jail inmates have a mental health condition, and up to 65 percent of the correctional population meets the medical criteria for a substance use disorder. I will ensure adequate training for law enforcement for crisis intervention and referral to treatment rather than incarceration, and will direct the attorney general to issue guidance to federal prosecutors on seeking treatment over incarceration for low-level and nonviolent drug crimes. I will also work to foster more collaboration between our public health and criminal justice systems before, during, and after a person is released from prison, to ensure continuity of care for those who suffer from mental health conditions. We need to ensure that people get the treatment they need to get back on their feet, as well as other supports that promote successful re-entry for formerly incarcerated individuals so they can serve as productive and valued members of their communities.”

Gubernatorial Candidates

State Sen. Colin Bonini (DE-R)
“Prison needs to be a dramatically more productive place than it is. I am opposed to solutions on the front-end; if someone commits a crime, that individual needs to be in system. And I am not recommending lesser time. That being said, though, the system needs to be more helpful. One of my proposals is changing prison environments. This includes building new facilities. Delaware has no local jails. A huge portion of making time in incarceration more productive is counseling – not just for mental health but also across the entire spectrum. Doing so will help people with disabilities re-integrate into their communities and secure employment upon release.”

Rep. John Carney (DE-D)
“Delaware’s prison system is very expensive and often does not provide the needed support, rehabilitation, and training that offenders need. I support offering appropriate alternatives that put those with disabilities back on the path to being productive members of our community. And I believe more education and training options should be available to offenders with disabilities, and those without disabilities, to ensure that they can work, find housing, and support themselves after they are released.”

Ms. Linda Coleman (NC-D) – running for Lt. Gov.
“We need to be more sensitive to disabilities and better adept at treating patients and correcting criminal behavior. In order to be more sensitive and take a more effective approach, we need to be informed as to whether a suspect has a diagnosis. With that knowledge, we can implement effective treatment toward a solution as opposed to exacerbating the current situation of having 750,000 [people with disabilities] behind bars and setting our most vulnerable citizens up for failure. As Lt. Governor, I will continue to advocate for funding our court system and public education system to ensure there is a nurse in every school, as well as support mental health and drug treatment courts.”

Mr. Mike Weinholtz (UT-D)
“Utah is currently in the middle of reevaluating its criminal justice system in general through reforms I largely support such as reduced or no jail time for minor offenses and an increased emphasis on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. I would like to take it one step further and provide a disability evaluation upon intake into the criminal justice system so that we can better ensure that we are only incarcerating individuals who pose a true threat to society while diverting those with physical and mental disabilities into treatment centers that will give these individuals the help and assistance they need to become constructive members of society while simultaneously achieving self-sufficiency.

For individuals who do pose a threat to society, but also happen to have a disability, we must ensure that we are not violating the individual’s 8th Amendment right regarding cruel and unusual punishment. This means greater training for officers, jail, and prison personnel.

I believe that the environment for just this sort of reform is ripe in Utah, and as governor, I would help to guide policy in just that direction.”

Sec. Sue Minter (VT-D)
“I support recent Vermont initiatives to use alternatives to the criminal justice system for nonviolent offenders when appropriate. Vermont already has a law that diverts many of those with intellectual disabilities who are convicted of violent offenses to secure non-institutional placements. When incarceration is appropriate, protections and services for those with disabilities and mental health issues must be greatly improved. And to face the challenges involved with reentry into the community, I strongly support Vermont’s fledgling efforts to better integrate our Corrections Department with our mental health and disabilities agencies in government as well as in the community.”

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott (VT-R)
“I’m proud of the progress certain areas of Vermont, such as Chittenden County, have made with programs like Rapid Intervention Community Courts (RICCs), which offer opportunities to seek a diversion – prior to charges even being filed – for those whose actions are driven by mental health issues or disabilities. I plan to work on the proven success of programs like these and expand them throughout the state. In addition, part of my plan to combat opiate addiction in Vermont would provide law enforcement with the discretion to direct those suffering from addiction to treatment programs, rather than placing them in jail for certain non-­violent crimes. I would look to expand this type of approach for those suffering from mental and physical disabilities as well. Finally, I would look to states like Kentucky, which has created a Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council, in order to reduce recidivism rates and improve the overall criminal justice system. Kentucky has also created an expungement program for certain non-­‐violent crimes to make the transition from jail to re-­‐integration easier for those seeking education, employment, and reentry into communities. I would seek to replicate these types of proven models.”

Senate Candidates

Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris (CA-D)
“Criminal justice reform is a key part of Kamala Harris’s platform, which includes a commitment to ensuring that prisons and jails are not used as a replacement for mental health services. Kamala also understands from her work as a prosecutor that the most effective way to stop crime is by lifting up communities and creating opportunities for young people to reach their full potential. In 2015, Attorney General Harris launched an investigation on the conditions in juvenile halls and camps overseen by the San Diego County Probation Department, a Department that has faced allegations of excessive force and use of restraints on youth made in a Disability Rights California report. She also understands that having a job is an important factor in preventing crime. In the Senate, she will fight to improve prison conditions and increase social services and occupational training for both current and former inmates, in addition to reducing income inequality on a national scale through the measures discussed in Question #9.”

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (CA-D)
“The treatment of people with disabilities in the corrections system is a grave problem and one I want to address in the U.S. Senate. We must increase federal funding for prevention and advocacy networks for corrections-based monitoring and advocacy. We also must require facilities to help eligible inmates qualify for Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance, Medicaid, and Medicare before they are released. Making these benefits available to qualifying releases is critical to their successful reintegration. Finally, I support oversight over the Department of Justice to ensure that it is aggressively investigating violations of the ADA’s promises of non-discriminatory treatment and equal opportunity to inmates.”

Mr. John Carroll (HI-R)
“I have no plan at this present time, but should the need arise in our state, I would address it.”

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (IL-D)
“I find the frequency with which those with disabilities are incarcerated and the care the receive in criminal justice system an urgent problem and a gross miscarriage of justice. Safeguarding the rights and the safety of those with disabilities must be a top priority in criminal justice reform, by expanding diversion and treatment options as an alternative to imprisonment. I believe that rebuilding the way the criminal justice process interacts with people with disabilities will be essential to making the system smarter, fairer and more cost-effective.”

Mr. Patrick Wiesner (KS-D)
“I have not given any thoughts to the relationships between those with disabilities and the criminal justice system.”

Mr. Foster Campbell (LA-D)
“Louisiana is plagued by the school-to-prison pipeline and our state imprisons more people per capital than any other place in the world. The mental health challenges facing our children cause many of them to end up in the criminal justice system, solely because they went without needed care. I’m committed to any and all policies that can improve access to mental health for our youth and divert them from a collision course with the criminal justice system. Investments in our kids and their health are much more cost effective than paying to imprison them as adults and investing in our kids is the right thing to do. I am committed to comprehensive criminal justice reform.”

Ms. Caroline Fayard (LA-D)
“First, as previously stated, I support youth and other people with disabilities to receive increased funding and support in school and for their education. More attention at the developmental level will help people with disabilities live fulfilling lives. However, I also believe that we need more reform that focuses on making sure that prisons are not merely substitutes for appropriate mental health care. More communication, coordination, and collaboration between our criminal justice systems and mental health resources is a crucial action item that I fully support.”

Mr. Abhay Patel (LA-R)
“Reform of the criminal justice system is one of the most pressing needs of this generation. We need reforms that enable those who need help to get the assistance they need and ensure that those who pose a danger to society are locked up.”

Del. Kathy Szeliga (MD-R)
“As a U.S. Senator, I approve federal judges and will look for judges that properly carry out the law and do so with respect to people with disabilities.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (MD-D)
“Mental health interventions, treatments, and restorative justice are critical parts of my overall criminal justice reform strategy. This should begin with positive behavioral interventions in the education system to avoid the school to prison pipeline that begins all too early for vulnerable populations. It must also include increased collaboration between law enforcement and public health agencies to ensure proper referrals for needed services. And for those already incarcerated, we need to improve access to treatment and expand Second Chance Act programs to help ex-offenders reintegrate into the community.”

Secretary of State Jason Kander (MO-D)
“As a country, we need to end the school-to-prison pipeline. It is not just good for our communities, but good economics. Correction costs for states have quadrupled in the last 20 years to nearly $60 billion a year nationally and Missouri has some of the highest rates of recidivism in the U.S. As Senator, I will fight for a criminal justice system that is fair and just, giving all Americans, including those with disabilities the appropriate resources during incarceration so we can reduce recidivism and treat all individuals with respect.

I do support diverting individuals with disabilities who are arrested to treatment options in lieu of jail where appropriate, and ensuring needed accommodations are met for incarcerated individuals with disabilities. There are also things we can do to prevent disabled individuals from entering the criminal justice system to begin with, starting with putting an end to the school-to-prison pipeline. We also need to give those swept up into the criminal justice system a chance to get their lives back on track, which is why I support the “ban the box” movement, job training in communities, and educational programs in prisons.”

Rep. Joe Heck (NV-R)
“There is an important debate taking place in our country regarding the criminal justice system and making it more effective. We need to ensure that local communities have the resources and support mechanisms in place to try and keep individuals out of the criminal justice system to begin with. However, when individuals with disabilities do enter the criminal justice system, it is critically important to ensure all of those involved with processing cases are aware of all available options for rehabilitation and that those individuals receive reasonable accommodations. As we have seen, jail time does not always mean successful rehabilitation. And so we also need community-based solutions for reintegration and job training, especially for individuals with disabilities who already face unfair, unwarranted stigmas of being disabled.”

Atty. Gen. Catherine Cortez Masto (NV-D)
“As Nevada’s former Attorney General, I believe in a tough, fair, and efficient criminal justice system that is designed to keep our communities safe. As a U.S. Senator, I will continue to advocate for an effective criminal justice system that appropriately accommodates our disabled population, treating them with respect and understanding.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (NH-R)
“I’ve cosponsored a number of measures focused on our criminal justice system and supporting individuals who are going through it, as well as appropriate diversion or alternatives to incarceration programs. Some of those bills include the Second Chance Reauthorization Act, which will continue programs to help prison inmates return to society after serving their time and reduce recidivism rates and the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act, which would help better support youth who come into contact with the criminal justice system. I’ll continue to look for other options for how to support individuals with disabilities should they come into contact with the criminal justice system. We must uphold a fair and impartial criminal justice system – one that is also effective and appropriately sentences individuals convicted in ways to enhance public safety and, at the same time, reduce recidivism.”

Gov. Maggie Hassan (NH-D)
“We need a fair and effective criminal justice system to help keep our communities safe. All too often, our prisons have a disproportionate number of people with mental illness or disability. We must continue to work to identify these people at arrest to assure appropriate treatment and placement. In New Hampshire, we have focused on ensuring that we are fully reintegrating individuals leaving our state corrections system. We have also expanded drug and mental health courts as alternatives for incarceration for individuals whose connection to the criminal justice system stems from their substance use or mental health disorders. In the Senate, I am committed to taking similar steps to help ensure that people with disabilities receive needed accommodations and are offered appropriate re-entry support.”

Sen. Richard Burr (NC-R)
“At the federal level, our justice system is administered by federal judges, U.S. attorneys, and U.S. Marshals, positions of considerable authority and discretion. These positions must be confirmed by the Senate. As a Senator, I have sought to support candidates for these positions who will carry out the law with integrity and with a respect for and awareness of people with disabilities.

Furthermore, I support fairer sentencing and am a cosponsor of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123), which is supported by the National Disability Rights Network ( This legislation places limits on juveniles in solitary confinement, provides terms for compassionate release, and provides support for those who are imprisoned. I will continue championing this bill, promoting the concept of fair sentencing, and enabling those who are in the criminal justice system to move forward as healthy, productive citizens.

Additionally, it is imperative that DNA evidence is analyzed to provide a full picture of a crime scene in order to determine the perpetrator. Too often, DNA evidence has not been reviewed, and this can lead to false convictions, including those of people with disabilities. One such example occurred in North Carolina, when two half-brothers with intellectual disabilities spent decades in jail for a crime they did not commit. It was only through DNA testing 30 years later that they were exonerated. I am a cosponsor of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, which includes the DNA testing program that led to these individuals being declared innocent.”

State Rep. Deborah Ross (NC-D)
“We have the highest incarceration rate in the world because of decades of failed policies. Instead of serving justice and promoting safety, we are incarcerating millions of non-violent men and women. Too many people are behind bars for low-level drug crimes. They should be released and given a second chance to become productive members of society. When I was in the State House, we worked hard to update our juvenile justice system to help juveniles get back on the right path and lead productive lives. For those 750,000 or more inmates with disabilities, we must make sure that they receive the accommodations they need. We must support all people with the mental healthcare and other services they need—not put them in solitary confinement or other punishments. We also must make sure that when people are released, they have the resources to be properly reintegrated into society including the Medicaid benefits and medications they need to maintain their disabilities and healthcare outside of prison.”

Mr. Joe DeMare (OH-G)
“Greens are committed to shutting down the “school to prison pipeline.” Our incarceration rates are the highest in the world, and the for profit prisons are creating an incentive for judges to fill them. Many studies have shown that education is the key to eliminating recidivism. I worked in a college program that provided inmates the opportunity to earn Associate’s degrees.  Recidivism rates for those students who finished their degrees were very low. These programs were eliminated when congress denied Pell grants to inmate students. I will work to restore education programs for incarcerated people. Prisons should be for rehabilitation.

There needs to be better transition services for all those who are released from prison, including the disabled. I will work to increase funding for prison to work transition programs. I will also work to insure that people with disabilities who are incarcerated receive necessary accommodations.

Greens also want to restore voting rights to inmates. This will help them more effectively press legislators for their own fair treatment.”

Mr. Mark Callahan (OR-R)
“I believe that part of the reason the disabled get wrapped up into crime situations has to do with the lack of public awareness, lack of community support, lack of quality education, and just all around lack of support programs and funding. In order for us to rectify this we first must directly deal with the things that are lacking and fix those. Then we will need an institution based treatment that focuses solely on the disabled who have committed crimes that allows them to learn about why what they did was wrong, teaches the better response, and prepares them to return to society as law abiding citizens. In the case of violent offenders I believe there needs to be a separate prison like setting solely for those proven to be disabled. There is currently an extreme amount of brutality in our prisons towards individuals with disability that is inhumane and due to lack of public awareness and knowledge this will take years to change, however having an entirely separate secured location for these offenders will at least ensure they are treated humanely.”

Mrs. Katie McGinty (PA-D)
“I believe diversionary and re-entry support programs are critical to reducing recidivism and should include procedures that are specific to people with disabilities. I am hopeful that as our nation begins to stop using private contractors to run federal prisons, we can increase oversight and work to stop rights violations that are rooted in misunderstanding and ignorance.”

Mr. Jay Williams (SD-D)
“As with nearly all of these questions, I do not have specific plans in place for disabled people. As a U.S. Navy veteran with service in Vietnam, I have friends who suffer from service related disabilities including one who has a 100% disability from PTSD. This person was incarcerated for criminal activity that in my opinion was directly related to his disability. Compassionate treatment that recognized his disability and the trauma he endured that caused this disability could have helped him, but it was unavailable. I am committed to working to help those with disabilities, especially when they face criminal prosecution.”

Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (WI-D)
“I support bipartisan efforts to reform the criminal justice system and prevent overincarceration. We must do more to divert people away from the criminal justice system who would be better served by an alternative institution, including people with disabilities. I also support full implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires young people in the criminal justice system to be screened for disabilities. Common sense measures like this can help prevent young people with disabilities from being caught up unnecessarily in the criminal justice system. I support training for correctional staff to ensure that they are able to accommodate the needs of incarcerated people with disabilities as well as access to appropriate health care for people with disabilities who are incarcerated.

RespectAbility has asked all the candidates for Governor and Senator on both sides of the aisle to complete the same questionnaire. We will share responses from additional campaigns as we receive them.

The RespectAbility Report is a nonpartisan political commentary on the 2016 U.S. elections with a focus on disability issues. The RespectAbility Report has covered all of the Democratic and Republican candidates for president, senate and governor. Coverage can be found at The RespectAbility Report is nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates.

Published in2016 Candidate QuestionnaireCongressGovernorsSenate


  1. As on many issues, though Trump did not respond to the Respectability questionnaire, he has quite a record, and an awful one.

    Some of his positions on law enforcement are at

    As a candidate he has whipped up tensions between law enforcement and the public and he has done a great deal to undo an emerging consensus that the United States was locking up far too many of our people.

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