Keeping the developmentally disabled out of prison

Debriere-crop_000Growing up in Parsons, Kan., Katy DeBriere was surrounded by people with developmental disabilities, many of them residents at a state hospital and research center where her parents worked.

“I went to school with a lot of kids with developmental disabilities and had a special connection to them because they were often also my parents’ clients,” said DeBriere, now an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Florida Institutional Legal Services in Newberry, Fla.

The nonprofit, Washington, DC-based Equal Justice Works provides public service work experience for law students and lawyers.

A 2008 graduate of the University of Florida Levin College of Law, DeBriere has taken her in-depth knowledge of a population that is particularly vulnerable within the criminal justice system and turned it into a project that is the only one of its kind in Florida.

Through education, outreach, resource development and direct advocacy, DeBriere is working to prevent the unnecessary incarceration and institutionalization of people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, such as autism.

“Statistics show that although 1.5 percent of the general population have developmental disabilities, they represent 4 to 10 percent of the prison population,” DeBriere said. “And I’ve found that when I go and talk to care providers and families of people with developmental disabilities, this is a concern.”

She has developed and is distributing an 82-page handbook for defense attorneys designed to help them identify and communicate with the developmentally disabled, understand state and federal benefits programs that could help them, document their disabilities and seek special sentencing considerations.

Developmental disabilities can include problems like impulse control that can result in behaviors that people find unacceptable in public, and this can sometimes lead to arrest.

It can begin with something as simple as an outburst at a library, as in the case of one of DeBriere’s clients, who was arrested and served with a trespass order.

DeBriere eventually got the trespass order lifted, but meanwhile he faced an even bigger problem — a potential cut in the support services available to him through the Developmentally Disabled Medicaid Waiver. Now, she is working to ensure he’ll be able to keep the services of a supportive living coach and companion who can help him avoid situations like the one he got into at the library.

FILS Executive Director Chris Jones said people with intellectual or developmental disabilities also are sometimes manipulated into participating in criminal behavior.

“A lot of times they’re used as runners or go-betweens in drug transactions with no criminal intent, no idea what they’re being put up to,” Jones said. “So, they’ll get sucked into a huge drug bust, and then typically they’ll be very cooperative with police and agree to whatever they’re accused of.”

After that, the person might not understand the charges or be able to explain his view of what happened. His defense attorney might not know the legal defenses applicable to the developmentally disabled or even be aware of his disability. Once in the prison system, where he may not understand the rules and is still subject to manipulation and miscommunication, it only gets worse.

“And if you get frustrated and you act out physically, now you’re a security risk,” said Jones, adding that this can lead to being put in isolation in a lockdown cell. “We’re talking about people who are probably not literate or capable of asking for the help they need, and it’s a very long, very lonely time for them. We’re hoping that with Katy’s project we can slow and divert the flow of people into that system with some education.”

DeBriere’s work during the two-year fellowship is supported by a $104,000 grant from The Florida Bar Foundation, but it began when DeBriere first worked at FILS as a law-school intern. The following summer she returned as a Florida Bar Foundation Legal Services Summer Fellow and began to hone her Equal Justice Works proposal with inspiration and help from several FILS attorneys whose career paths had begun the same way.

Her plan for the remainder of her fellowship is to take the handbook statewide and make presentations in various judicial circuits around Florida.

Jones believes those who meet her —even those with years of experience working in Mental Health Court — will leave having learned something new.

“Katy has been an admitted lawyer for about a year, and I think she’s probably now an expert in the state on this area of the law,” said Jones, who hopes to hire her as a staff attorney after the fellowship.