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Criminal Justice Reform a Major Issue for People with Disabilities

By: Andrea Sears

HARRISBURG, PA. – The criminal justice reform bill making its way through Congress will help thousands of people with disabilities re-enter their communities.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 32 percent of people in federal prisons and 40 percent of all people in jail in the United States have at least one disability.

The First Step Act passed by the Senate on Tuesday would expand job training and early release programs, and reduce minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders incarcerated in federal prisons.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of the group RespectAbility, says those reforms will help thousands of people with disabilities successfully leave incarceration.

“It means they’ll be able to go back into the community and hopefully get a job, have their talents used in the community and to have a better future,” she states.

Leadership in the House says it will pass the bill this week and President Donald Trump has said he will sign it into law.

Although the First Step Act only would apply to the 180,000 people in federal prisons, Mizrahi points out that the overwhelming support the bill has received from both sides of the aisle in Washington could help spur criminal justice reforms at all levels of government.

“While this one bill is certainly no panacea for all the different issues, it gives us a platform where people at the state, local or federal level can problem solve together in a bipartisan manner,” she states.

There are more than 2 million people in prisons and jails in the United States, including more than 750,000 with disabilities.

Mizrahi notes that further reforms are needed to reduce the number of people being incarcerated.

She says underfunded schools, predominantly attended by children of color, often lack the resources to diagnose and teach those with learning disorders or other disabilities.

“Then they get really behind in their work, and then they’re so far behind that they drop out or they’re expelled,”
she points out. “This is what leads people into the school-to-prison pipeline in the first place.”

Only 61 percent of youths with disabilities graduate from high school, compared with 81 percent of those without disabilities.

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