Posted January 30, 2014

Bringing justice to those with disabilities

For people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, navigating the criminal-justice system is difficult: Prosecutors looking for strong testimonies might believe developmentally disabled victims cannot give them; issues with communication might make it difficult for court personnel to understand such victims. Further, the latter also might think those with disabilities are not able to provide accurate information.

Therefore, the Criminal Justice Project in the Institute on Disabilities at Temple supports individuals with disabilities and their families; helps disability-service providers understand the criminal-justice process; and aids prosecutors in considering the attributes of people with disabilities involved in the justice system.

“Victims and offenders with intellectual and developmental disabilities come in contact with the criminal-justice system at a rate that is disproportionate to individuals without disabilities,” said Beverly Frantz, director of the Criminal Justice Project. “Often, victims with disabilities do not have equal access to the system because they are perceived as not being credible witnesses. Ironically, offenders are perceived as being extremely credible.”

The Criminal Justice Project began with the Equal Justice Initiative in the mid-1990s. Its first project was the documentary Unequal Justice: The Case for Johnnie Lee Wilson. That film uses interviews and police transcripts to examine the case of a 19-year-old with intellectual disabilities who was imprisoned for nine years for a murder he did not commit.

Since then, the Institute on Disabilities has produced videos offering step-by-step explanations of the criminal-justice system, available on its website. Through those videos, the institute aims to empower people and ensure that families of the accused understand the system. “We never take the position that someone is innocent,” Frantz explained. “We just want individuals to understand the process.”

Frantz also noted that it can be difficult for people with disabilities to testify at a trial, especially if they have trouble speaking clearly so others can understand them. To help solve that problem, the institute developed the VOICE (Validating Others Intentional Communication Expression) protocol. It provides technical assistance to victims and defendants with disabilities, to better ensure their fair treatment in court.

For example, five years ago, a young woman with cerebral palsy was raped. “We did not have the physical evidence that often comes with an assault case,” said John O’Neill, assistant district attorney in Philadelphia and prosecutor for the case. “So the jury had to make a decision on the credibility of the victim. This required them to see and hear her.” But cerebral palsy would make it difficult for her to be understood in a noisy courtroom.

O’Neill sought approval for VOICE accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Carrie Leonhart, a speech pathologist from the institute, stood behind the victim and repeated her every word and utterance without interpretation or clarification. In the end, the perpetrator was convicted.

O’Neill hopes to see VOICE used more often. “It has huge value—it’s empowering. They have a choice when asked, ‘How would you like to communicate to the jury?’”

The Criminal Justice Project is funded by the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare Office of Developmental Programs.

—Carol R. Cool