Study Sheds Light on Disabled Persons Caught in Criminal Justice System

By Christopher Zoukis

A recent study issued by the non-profit Center for American Progress examined how Americans with disabilities have fared under the nation’s criminal justice system. Not surprisingly, the results speak to the failings of our penal system.

At its outset, the study, Disabled Behind Bars: The Mass Incarceration of People with Disabilities in America’s Jails and Prisons, finds persons with disabilities “dramatically over represented” behind bars. Citing data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it notes persons in local jails are four times more likely than non-incarcerated persons to report having a disability, while inmates of federal and state prisons are three times more likely to do so.

Overall, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics for the years 2011-2012, by about a 40% to 32% margin, jail inmates are more likely than prison inmates to have one or more disabilities affecting their sight, hearing, mental, walking, self-care or independent living capabilities. That holds true for both male inmates (38.5% among those in jails, versus 31% in prisons) and female inmates (49.5% in jails, compared to 39.5% in prisons).

Mental health conditions afflict a large number of those incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails: Bureau of Justice Statistics show that at least one out of every five inmates has a serious mental illness. Such frequently reported cognitive disabilities as learning disorders, autism, dementia, Down’s syndrome and other intellectual problems affect prison inmates at four times the rate they are found in the general populace, and jail inmates exhibit them at six times the rate they are as likely as do individuals in the general population.

Not coincidentally, the rise in incarcerated populations came during the strong trend over more than half a century to deinstitutionalizing persons formerly treated in state mental hospitals and similar facilities. For example, those facilities treated almost 560,000 in the year 1955, but the total had fallen to around 70,000 by 1994.

Since community-based alternative treatments for patients with mental health disorders did not significantly increase as patients were being deinstitutionalized, persons with mental disabilities became increasingly likely to be caught up by the criminal justice system, frequently for trivial offenses. As a result, three times as many persons with mental health disabilities are now found in prisons and jails than in state mental facilities.

The detailed new study, released in mid-July, notes the significantly greater cost of treating such conditions in prison or jail setting rather than in mental health facilities. For example, the annual cost for treating an inmate with a serious mental health condition averages over $48,500, while it costs only about 40% as much to provide treatment in a community setting, even with the cost of providing supportive housing added to the total.

In 2013, the Vera Institute of Justice, after reviewing a wide range of research on the subject, concluded it could cost two to three times as much to care for an incarcerated inmate with a serious mental disability than to provide treatment in a community setting.

Beyond the disproportionate expense, dealing with disabilities in incarceration raises other problems. Quality of care is often problematic, and jails and prisons treatment facilities may also run afoul of the American With Disabilities Act’s mandate, as recognized by the Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead v. L.C. decision, to integrate inmates with disabilities.


Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and