Invisible By Design: Developmental and Cognitive Disabilities in Allegheny County’s Criminal Legal System

While a great deal of research and advocacy focuses on the prevalence of serious mental illness and substance use disorders in jails and prisons, much less attention is paid to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, autism, or cognitive impairments. These disabilities are often referred to as “invisible,” as they tend to go unnoticed or undocumented by disabling systems. However, it is too often the case that what we call invisible is simply that which we choose not to see. Evidence suggests that intellectual and developmental disabilities are prevalent in jails and prisons, yet the experiences of people with these disabilities are hidden by a system designed for silence and suppression.

In response to this invisibilization, the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) began a research study to map out the intersection points between people with intellectual disabilities and the criminal punishment system in Allegheny County. Our latest report, Invisible By Design Developmental and Cognitive Disabilities in Allegheny County’s Criminal Legal System, analyzes current practices, identifies information gaps, and makes recommendations that will inform advocates, organizers, and government officials. Using data from ALC’s Court Watch program, our objectives were to understand how best to integrate the needs and experiences of people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities into ALC’s Allegheny County Jail and court-focused litigation, community organizing, public education, and media outreach.

Our findings were not surprising: Allegheny County’s criminal punishment system abuses, neglects, and unconstitutionally detains people with disabilities. Allegheny County and Pennsylvania as a whole, has been sued multiple times for having the longest competency restoration waitlist times in the country, keeping people with disabilities imprisoned past constitutional limits or even after they’ve been cleared to be released to the community.

Date of Publication: December 20, 2023
Funded by: FISA Foundation