The Arc Responds to Execution of Ledell Lee in Arkansas: “A dark day for justice.”

Washington, DC – On April 20, the state of Arkansas carried out the execution of Ledell Lee, ignoring the pleas of advocates and legal experts across the country.  The Arc had urged Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson to commute this death sentence pending a full clinical evaluation to determine whether Mr. Lee had intellectual disability (ID). Following his execution, The Arc released the following statement:

“Today is a dark day for justice not just in Arkansas but across the country. The execution of Ledell Lee betrays the values of our legal system. If an evaluation of Mr. Lee had shown that he had intellectual disability, he would have been granted the protections of Atkins v. Virginia and subsequent Supreme Court decisions – protections that prohibited the use of the death penalty. Governor Hutchinson ignored the advice of legal experts across the country and Mr. Lee’s trial lawyers failed to properly investigate whether he had intellectual disability. These actions combined led to a gross miscarriage of justice that we will not soon forget,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

In a letter to the Governor, The Arc noted that the evidence presented by the neuropsychological expert in this case supports the conclusion that if Mr. Lee underwent a full evaluation, he would likely have met the three prongs of an ID diagnosis.

This evaluation was vital in this case because in its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the special risk of wrongful execution faced by persons with ID and banned the execution of persons with ID as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Subsequently, in Hall v. Florida (2014), the Court rejected an arbitrary cutoff for IQ scores in making the intellectual disability determination and emphasized the importance of courts consulting clinical standards in their analysis. Most recently, in Moore v. Texas (2017), the Court rejected Texas’ use of stereotypical and outdated factors—rather than well-established clinical standards—to determine intellectual disability in death penalty cases on the grounds that they “create an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.”

The Arc has deep sympathy for the family and friends of the victim in this case, and we supported appropriate punishment of all responsible parties. The Arc did not seek to eliminate punishment of Mr. Ledell or others with disabilities, but rather, to ensure that justice is served and the rights of all parties are protected. The Arc is committed to seeking lawful outcomes for people with ID and will continue working to ensure that the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on this issue are abided by in jurisdictions across the country.

The Arc advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of over 650 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.

School Privatization – What is Happening, and Should We be Concerned?

By Annie Acosta, Director of Fiscal and Family Support Policy

Social media is abuzz over a bill that would largely wipe out federal support for our current public elementary and secondary education system and replace it with vouchers for private schools or home schooling. This legislation, the Choices in Education Act of 2017 (H.R. 610), has two cosponsors (neither of whom are in the committee of jurisdiction) and has not advanced since its introduction in January.

Disability advocates might better target their energy for the President’s full Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Request expected in mid-May that is expected to include significant privatization efforts. In March, the President released a “skinny’ budget” that included brief plans to create a $250 million school voucher program and a $1 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act Title I “portability” proposal. Title I currently provides about $15 billion per year to school districts with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families. The President’s portability proposal would allow for these public school dollars to follow students to the public schools of their choice, an option that many reasonably fear is a first step toward privatization. The Administration’s March proposal would ramp up portability to $20 billion over time – about a third of existing federal aid for education.

The bulk of this amount would go to “encouraging districts to adopt a system of student-based budgeting and open enrollment that enables Federal, State, and local funding to follow the student to the public school of his or her choice.” Unlike the current system where Districts create school budgets based largely on how much it costs to pay the salaries of school staff and maintain the facility, the proposed funding model would follow each student, no matter where they enroll. This could leave districts to choose among the following private school choice schemes that are already in existence, even if only on a small scale, across states:

School Vouchers or Scholarships. School district funds are allocated to families in the form a voucher to pay partial or full tuition. Twenty five states have such programs.
Tax Credit Scholarships – Taxpayers (individuals and businesses) receive full or partial tax credits for donating to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships. Twenty one states provide tax credit scholarships.
Education Savings Accounts – Parents receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts (often via debit card). The funds can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, tutoring, etc. Five states operate education savings accounts.
Individual Tax Credits and Deductions – Parents receive income tax relief for approved educational expenses (such as tuition, books, tutoring, and transportation). Nine states provide individual tax credits and deductions for education expenses.

Aside from logistical concerns about how the President’s education plan would work, many education advocates are voicing concerns over draining public schools of students and funding. This may be of particular concern to special education students who typically benefit from economies of scale in public schools by sharing resources such as aides, therapists, and counselors. In addition, for special education students who are interested in taking advantage of the private school options in their state, it is important to note that most states do not require that students participating in these programs retain their full rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In fact, a number of states explicitly require that families relinquish their IDEA rights. These and other considerations are critical for families of students with disabilities to consider in deciding whether to support and/or take advantage of these programs that have increased significantly in recent years. Click here for a direct download of The Arc’s School Voucher Parent Decision Checklist.

The Arc on the Reintroduction of ABLE Act Improvement Bills

By: Mike Nagel, Program Associate

Eight members of Congress have re-introduced three bipartisan bills to make improvements to the Stephen J. Beck, Jr. Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act. These bills, listed below, are similar to three bills introduced last year:

  • The ABLE Age Adjustment Act (R.1874/S.817) is sponsored by Representative Tony Cardenas (D-CA) in the House, with Representatives Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Pete Sessions (R-TX), Christopher Smith (R-NJ), and James Langevin (D-RI) as original co-sponsors; and by Senator Robert Casey (D-PA) in the Senate, with Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) as original co-sponsors. This bill raises the age of onset of disability for eligibility in the program from before age 26 to before age 46.
  • The ABLE Financial Planning Act (R.1897/S.816) is sponsored by Representative McMorris Rodgers in the House, with Representatives Sessions, Cardenas, Smith, and Langevin as original co-sponsors; and by Senator Casey in the Senate, with Senators Burr and Van Hollen in the Senate. This bill would allow a transfer of funds from a Section 529 College Savings Plan account to an ABLE account. However, funds transferred to the ABLE account would still count toward the annual contribution limit (currently $14,000).
  • The ABLE to Work Act (R.1896/S.818) is sponsored by Representative McMorris Rodgers in the House, with Representatives Sessions, Cardenas, Smith, and Langevin as original co-sponsors; and by Senator Burr, with Senators Casey and Van Hollen as original co-sponsors. This bill would increase the annual contribution limit for individuals who work by the amount they earn, up to the federal poverty level (currently $11,770). When combined with the current annual contribution limit, this bill would allow annual contributions to an ABLE account of up to a total of $25,770 for people who work. Furthermore, it makes contributions to one’s own ABLE account eligible for a Saver’s Tax Credit. However, income earned will still count toward substantial gainful activity for SSI and Medicaid eligibility.

Last year, the Senate Finance Committee approved the ABLE Financial Planning Act and the ABLE to Work Act as amendments to a larger bill, the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act of 2016 (S.3471). However, the bill did not reach the Senate floor, and no further action was taken. With the start of the 115th Congress in January, the bills must begin the legislative process again in both the House and Senate.

The Arc supports all three bills and believes they offer meaningful improvements to the ABLE
Act. However, on the basis of fairness and equity, The Arc opposes the movement of the ABLE to Work Act or ABLE Financial Planning Act before movement of the ABLE Age Adjustment Act. The ABLE Age Adjustment Act makes more individuals eligible for the program while the other two bills improve the program only for people who are currently eligible. When the ABLE Act was passed in 2014, there was no philosophical basis for limiting the program to those disabled before the age of 26. The bill had been amended to add the age restriction in order to minimize the fiscal impact; in response to disability community concerns, House leadership made commitments to begin restoring the eligibility age as soon as possible. Many people with disabilities who advocated for the law were made ineligible by the age limitation; fairness and equity demand that efforts go to expand eligibility before making the law better for those already eligible.

Many of The Arc’s constituents are among those excluded due to the age of onset requirement. Intellectual disability and developmental disabilities begin before age 26 by definition. However, not all people with I/DD are considered to have the level of severity which allows eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security disability programs—the standard used for ABLE accounts. However, they may reach the necessary severity level, and possible eligibility for the ABLE program, as they age and acquire additional limitations, depending on whether the ABLE program age of onset is increased.

The Arc will continue to support all three bills, but we emphasize that the ABLE Age Adjustment Act should be passed before or together with the other bills.

RE: Clemency for Ledell Lee

Dear Governor Hutchinson:

I write on behalf of The Arc of the United States (The Arc) to urge you to commute the death sentence of Ledell Lee pending a full clinical evaluation to determine whether Mr. Lee has an intellectual disability (ID). The Arc is a national non-profit organization which, for over 65 years, has sought to promote and protect the civil and human rights of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities through the work of its national office and over 650 state and local chapters throughout the country. Through its National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability®, The Arc seeks justice for those with ID who find themselves entangled in the criminal justice system, often without necessary accommodations or understanding of their disability.

The Arc has deep sympathy for the family and friends of the victims in this case, and we support appropriate punishment of all responsible parties. However, Mr. Lee’s history is replete with evidence indicating a potential ID diagnosis, which would bring him under the protection of the United States Supreme Court’s decisions in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), Hall v. Florida, 134 S. Ct. 1986 (2014), and the more recent decision in Moore v. Texas, No. 15–797, slip op. (U.S. Mar. 28, 2017).

In its 2002 Atkins decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the special risk of wrongful execution faced by persons with ID (formerly termed “mental retardation”) and banned the execution of persons with ID as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, noting that individuals with ID “do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct” and that “[n]o legitimate penological purpose is served by executing a person with intellectual disability…to impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being.” In its 2014 Hall decision, the U.S. Supreme Court further clarified its decision that people with ID not be executed in violation of the Constitution, requiring that adaptive behavior evidence, beyond IQ test scores alone, be taken into account when determining whether an individual has ID. The more recent Moore case further confirms adaptive behavior criteria as necessary in determining whether someone meets diagnostic criteria for ID, and that such criteria must comport with modern clinical and scientific understanding of ID.

The evidence presented by the neuropsychological expert in this case, Dr. Dale Watson, supports the conclusion that if Mr. Lee undergoes a full evaluation, he will likely meet the three prongs of an ID diagnosis: (1) significantly impaired intellectual functioning; (2) adaptive behavior deficits in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills; and (3) origination of the disability before the age of 18. In order to complete his analysis, Mr. Lee’s adaptive deficits and history during the developmental period (before age 18) need to be fully assessed. Individuals with ID—like everyone else—differ substantially from one another. For each person with ID there will be things he or she cannot do but also many things he or she can do. Because the mixture of skill strengths and skill deficits varies widely among persons with ID, there is no clinically accepted list of common, ordinary strengths or abilities that would preclude a diagnosis of ID. Thus, the focus in assessing an individual’s adaptive behavior must be on deficits. As recently confirmed in Moore, adaptive strengths are irrelevant to this analysis and IQ alone cannot paint a full picture of whether a person has an ID. Thus, we urge that Mr. Lee receive a full evaluation for ID to determine whether he may be eligible for the Atkins constitutional protection from the death penalty.

Given the high likelihood of ID in this case, it is troubling that the lawyers who represented Mr. Lee throughout his trial failed to properly investigate evidence of Mr. Lee’s potential ID. As a result, no evidence of Mr. Lee’s potential disability was presented to the jury during the sentencing phase of his trial. If a full evaluation confirms Mr. Lee’s suspected diagnosis of ID, then Mr. Lee’s death sentence violates current prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment as set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Atkins, Hall, and Moore.

The Arc does not seek to eliminate punishment of Mr. Lee or others with disabilities, but rather, to ensure that justice is served and the rights of all parties are protected. The Arc is committed to seeking lawful outcomes for people with ID and will continue working to ensure that the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on this issue are abided by in jurisdictions across the country. I humbly ask that you consider commutation to address the possibility of an unconstitutional miscarriage of justice in the case of Ledell Lee.

Most respectfully,

Peter V. Berns
Chief Executive Officer
The Arc of the United States