Persons with mental retardation are usually defined as those with an IQ below 70, but practically speaking, such persons can be described with fair accuracy as having a childlike quality of thinking, coupled with slowness in learning new material. Mentally retarded persons have little long-term perspective and little ability to understand the consequences of their actions. They are usually followers and are easily manipulated. (The mentally retarded are not typically mentally ill; mental illness can strike persons at any level of intellectual functioning.)
Failure to identify persons with mental retardation makes it difficult to assess the scope of the problem. The best recent estimate suggests that mentally retarded persons make up approximately 4 percent of the prison population. Some 21,000 mentally retarded persons in California alone are on probation or parole or are incarcerated in juvenile or adult facilities--a number that would seem worthy of policy attention. Yet this population has drawn almost no scholarly, public, or policy interest.
A few cities--Boston, Fort Worth, and Cleveland among them--do have programs that aid the transition of the mentally retarded parolee or probationer to society. And programs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania divert certain convicts to carefully supervised probation. Programs offering daily structure and work to mentally retarded participants seem to reduce considerably their rearrest rates. These efforts raise hopes for broader implementation of programs to serve this population. The objective of such programs is not to excuse mentally retarded offenders from punishment but to recognize their special needs and, in doing so, foster their return to law-abiding behavior and save taxpayers money.
Offenders with mental retardation represent a more promising target group for intermediate sanctions. For the reasons mentioned above, they tend to serve long sentences relative to others who commit similar crimes. And, because it appears they can be safely supervised under intermediate sanctions and their recidivism reduced, costs can be lowered further.
If the potential savings are not enough to induce states to change the way they handle offenders with mental retardation, they are likely to face litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That federal law, signed in 1990, bans discrimination based on disability. In reports interpreting the act, U.S. Department of Justice staff have made it clear that states cannot ignore the needs of prisoners with mental retardation. They must instead review all prison programs to ensure that they are accessible to and usable by disabled inmates. In California, private organizations have already filed a class action lawsuit against the governor and the state department of corrections to force compliance with the act. This case could set precedent and, if nothing else, should considerably raise the profile of the issue.
Whether states take action to save money or to comply with a court order, much more needs to be known to ensure that the actions taken will serve justice, the taxpayer, and the offender with mental retardation. All prisons will have to begin assessing incoming inmates for mental disabilities, as those in Texas now do, so the scope of the problem can be discerned. And more information will be needed regarding the characteristics of offenders with mental retardation and their crimes, how persons with mental retardation become involved in the criminal justice system, and who provides advocacy services on their behalf, among other things.
RAND research briefs summarize research that has been more fully documented elsewhere. This research brief describes research carried out within RAND's Criminal Justice Program and funded by a generous gift from Irving and Muriel Cohen; it is fully documented by Joan Petersilia in "Justice for All? Offenders with Mental Retardation and the California Corrections System," The Prison Journal, Vol. 77, No. 4, 1997. Copies of the article can be obtained by contacting the author at RAND. This research brief is also available in hardcopy.
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