Policy Advancing Diversion and Reentry for People with Disabilities


Chris Huff

Policy Analyst – Diversion and Reentry


(312) 640-2131

COVID-19, Police Violence, and Incarceration Reduction

In 2018 Access Living joined the MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge. The aim of the Challenge is reducing jail incarceration in the United States. Of the 52 Challenge sites, partners, and strategic allies, Access Living is the only site working to reduce incarceration rates of people with disabilities. Our initial work culminated in the 2019 white paper, “Access to Justice: A Cross-Disability Perspective on Reducing Jail Incarceration” and policy recommendations to reduce the incarceration of people with disabilities.

In the wake of the COVID-19 assault on jails and prisons and the continued police violence against unarmed black and brown people, we are now working on an expanded set of recommendations.

Our Policy Recommendations

1. Promoting the Community Emergency Services and Support Act (CESSA)
CESSA, otherwise known as the Stephon Edward Watts Act, was drafted by Candace Coleman of Access Living and Advancing Your Leadership Power (AYLP) in the wake of the murder of Stephon Watts, an autistic teenager, at the hands of the Calumet City Police Department. The purpose of the bill is to create parity in emergency medical responses and emergency mental and behavior health responses. Parity would eliminate law enforcement responses to mental health and behavioral health emergencies when individuals are not suspected of violating the law. Access Living aims to make CESSA a high priority for the November 2020 veto session vote in the Illinois General Assembly.

2. Demanding true police reform
Access Living is developing positions on several areas of police reform. These areas may include ending police quasi-immunity, limiting contract barriers to police discipline, increasing transparency of police union contract negotiations, ending police-prosecutor partnerships, and increasing the states’ attorneys general subpoena power. In terms of immediate action, we are pushing to change coded language used in police training materials that describe individuals as “subjects”.  Language matters. To influence juries, prosecutors refer to individuals as defendants, assailants, etc. Defense attorneys refer to our clients by their names. Language can perpetuate negative stereotypes of people with disabilities. Changing language used to describe community members whom the police interact with is a small but important step in police reform.

3. Expanding Medicaid enrollment services in jails
While Access Living is working to address a variety of medical service issues in jails, one of our immediate focuses is supporting existing plans and creating policies and practices that would allow justice-involved individuals to enroll in Medicaid during the jail intake process.

4. Removing barriers to re-entry by introducing ADA/504 policy modifications and reforms to existing policies that require housing as a condition of probation and supervised release
This work will also include crafting policies that apply Padilla v. Kentucky and United States v. Nesbeth in a disability context to the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. Housing barriers often prohibit people with disabilities from leaving jail and prison settings at the completion of their criminal terms. That requirement also prevented many high-risk disabled inmates from being released from jails and prisons during COVID-19. Our policy reform efforts look to avert another crisis caused by the coronavirus as well as removing the housing barriers for people re-integrating into non-congregate settings.

5. Addressing disability discrimination in pre-trial risk assessment tools
Pre-trial risk assessment tools are used to determine whether an individual qualifies for bail or can be released from jail on their own recognizance pending trial. These pre-trial assessment tools criminalize disability by scoring mental illness as an increased risk factor. The disability consequences of pre-trial assessments extend beyond what is highlighted here. Our expanded recommendations include fundamentally altering risk assessments that criminalize disability.

This list is not inclusive of the recommendations or work that Access Living, in coalition with local and national partners, plans as we go forward on in the Safety and Justice Challenge. We will keep you updated here on the work that we do to reduce jail incarceration.