Disabled People Are Being Held in Jails for Years Without Trials

The Sixth Amendment promises: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial,” but what happens when that isn’t the case? For disabled citizens of the United States (non-citizens don’t receive this protection and may be held for months or years in immigration detention awaiting processing), the right to a speedy trial is not guaranteed. Instead, people with cognitive, intellectual and other disabilities may find themselves imprisoned for years — even decades — while they await trial. This gross violation of civil rights needs urgent attention from the Department of Justice, and should be considered a critical part of larger penal reform, because no one who hasn’t been convicted of a crime should be effectively serving time.

In a detailed investigation, the Tampa Bay Times explored cases of disabled inmates who had been waiting for years in the penal system without receiving trials. Inmates have been ruled incapable of assisting their defense, which for reasons known only to the justice system has been interpreted as meaning they can be held indefinitely — or for as long as someone convicted of the crimes they stand accused of would have served.

Effectively, the justice system is sending people to prison without trial, and without ever formally determining whether someone committed a crime. This is a shocking human rights violation, and one that the United States would condemn if it occurred in any other nation of the world, yet, it’s tolerated on our own soil. While judges are required to annually review cases to determine if they can be heard, such hearings last for only minutes and include very limited information and testimony, with individual judges being allowed to rule that an inmate is “too dangerous” to be allowed back out into the world — apparently, someone who has never been convicted of committing a crime can still be considered guilty enough to be punished for it.

Disabled detainees become trapped in an endless spiral that keeps them in the prison system as the legal system battles over their status. They may be subjected to commitment hearings despite the fact that there’s no evidence to support such action, and when they can’t adjust well to the environment of detention facilities, this in turn is used against them. So-called “maladaptive behaviors” are used as grounds to restrict privileges and send people into further isolation.

The reality of what happens when disabled people are accused of crimes contradicts the myth that disabled people “walk free” if they cannot demonstrate competency to stand trial. In fact, just the opposite is true. If there are questions about an accused’s competence, that individual can be trapped in the justice system, unable to move forward, creating a gross miscarriage of justice whether the accused is guilty or not. In a nation where the cornerstone of the justice system is a presumption of innocence until someone is proved guilty, disabled people are treated like they are guilty.

This news comes at the same time as a landmark case involving a disabled black man in North Carolina who was just freed after spending 31 years on the state’s death row. His exoneration is due to ample evidence showing that he was coerced into a confession, tortured and subjected to a limited trial with scanty and missing evidence. While he was in prison, he lived in a state of constant fear. Both his mother and grandmother died during his incarceration, and he saw his family on only limited occasions thanks to the time and expense involved in traveling to the prison. At 50, he faces an entirely different world outside the doors of the prison, and the justice system that ruined his life won’t be held responsible for it.

When disabled people are held without trial or falsely convicted, it’s an abridgment of their civil rights and an abuse of the justice system. It also means that the real perpetrators of the crimes they’re held for walk free, which is a double travesty of justice.

Photo credit: Clyde Robinson


Beth O'Brien
Beth O'Brien4 years ago

Thanks Republicans for paving the pathway for these abuses. You did it again!!

JL A4 years ago

CA has a process for competency to stand trial where that portion of time is spent in a health facility with proper treatment capacity for their condition.

Joan E.
Joan E4 years ago

What happened to our country and the rights we were all promised? We're spied on, there are illegal searches and seizures, there are indefinite detentions, there has been torture, there is no longer separation of church and state. Who will fight for the freedom we were supposed to have? What has become of us, and how did we let this happen?

Bonnie Bowen
Bonnie Bowen4 years ago

So damn wrong!

Hent Catalina-Maria

So horrible!

Vicky P.
Vicky P4 years ago


Alexandra G.
Alexandra G4 years ago

horrible !!!!

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa4 years ago

Thank you

Nikolas K.
Nikolas K4 years ago

Its my opinion that Reagan and other governments closed mental institution basicaly as they feared being put into one of these institutions when people realised just what type of people they were by their actions in running the country. As a consequence the people who need help are now suffering.

Joanne Dixon
Joanne D4 years ago

Not to justify this practice, but I would like to point out that there is a difference between being held without trial just because, and being held without trial because your attorney is still looking for evidence to benefit you (to clear you or to mitigate) in order to acquit you or at least minimize your sentence. Most offenders wouldn't have a problem with the latter. There is such s thing as a "rush to judgment."

Perhaps it also bears repeating that there is a difference between jail and prison. You are not in a prison if you have not been convicted. You are in a jail. More states have private prisons than have private jails. Someone being held without trial is therefore much less likely o be in a private facility.

In part thanks to Saint Ronnie Ray-gun, no, there is no separate system that I know of for those who are not able to participate in their own defense. If you are in a state that does have a separate system, we would all like to hear about it.