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How Are Prosecutors Taught to Work with Disabled and Mentally Ill Defendants?

Mentally ill and disabled defendants constitute one of the most vulnerable groups in American society. Often targeted for violent crimes because of their illnesses or disabilities, they are nevertheless frequently portrayed in popular culture as aggressors.

How are prosecutors in the New York court system taught to understand mental illness and disability? What legal rights does a mentally ill or disabled defendant have? This article will provide an overview of just those questions. If you’ve been accused of a crime, call a Rockland County criminal defense attorney right away. We have defended the rights of many defendants over the years, including the mentally ill and disabled community.

What Is a Disability?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a disability is defined as “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Although this is the current legal definition, activist groups would point out that the phrasing has an excessive focus on impairment. Many disabled individuals do not use a medical diagnosis or impairment as the primary lens by which they understand themselves.

International human rights law uses a similar definition, identifying disability as “long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder…full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” This definition is not perfect, given its continued emphasis on the negative language of impairment, but it provides one important advantage over the ADA definition: it spends as much or more time talking about societal barriers, as it does talking about disabilities as impairments. In so doing, it helps to highlight widespread issues with disability discrimination.

Two more categorizations are understood by U.S. law to exist within the realm of disability. A developmental disability refers to a life-long disability that starts before someone reaches age 22, typically during that person’s development period, and that substantially affects their ability to care for themselves, to learn, to communicate, to live independently, to work, or to make decisions. An intellectual disability refers to limitations specifically in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviors. To be considered legally intellectually disabled, the onset of someone’s symptoms had to start before age 18, though the individual may have only understood their experience as disabled long after symptoms began to manifest.

What Is Mental Illness?

Mental illnesses are defined as medical conditions that interfere with how a person thinks and feels, with their mood, their daily functioning, and their ability to relate to others. Mental illnesses, like disabilities, can be mild, moderate, or severe. Mental illness may begin at any age, but up to 75% of mental illness starts before age 24. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 19% of adults in the United States live with a mental illness.

What Are the Legal Rights of Defendants Who Are Mentally Ill?

Various statutes exist in United States law for the protection of disabled and mentally ill people. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 are two specific pieces of federal legislation that work hand-in-hand with state law to protect disabled and mentally ill people’s civil rights and make discrimination illegal.

The United States legal system is therefore obligated not to discriminate against the disabled or mentally ill by refusing to provide them with services or programs necessary for the person’s full participation in the community.

For a prosecutor, this can mean ensuring that mentally ill and disabled people have access to the full resources of the court. This may include adjusting existing programs, like plea bargain programs with requirements that are unduly and uniquely burdensome to mentally ill and disabled people. Part of having access includes being able to effectively communicate, and to this end, prosecutors should use services like captioning, interpreters, and notetakers, among others.

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