Too often, disability is criminalized due to a lack of understanding—by both the public and first responders. Disability-related behaviors can be perceived as threatening or suspicious, and it’s estimated that one third to half of all people in the U.S. killed by police have a disability. The Arc is working hard to protect the rights of people with disabilities to exist safely in their communities—people like Neli Latson.
In 2010, Neli Latson was an 18-year-old special education student with autism who was sitting on a bench outside his neighborhood library waiting for it to open. Someone called the police reporting a “suspicious” Black male, possibly with a gun. Neli had committed no crime and was not armed, but being a young Black male with autism, he would soon experience the tragic results of a system stacked against him.
When approached by a deputy, who quickly found that he was unarmed, Neli tried to walk away but was grabbed by the deputy several times. He reacted with a fight-or-flight response, a common instinct for people with autism.—resulting in an altercation. Neli was arrested and charged with resisting arrest and assaulting the officer.
What should have been an innocent chance encounter with the police spiraled out of control and marked the beginning of years of horrific abuse in the criminal legal system. Prosecutors refused to consider the role Neli’s disability played in his reaction to the police officer, dismissing it as a diagnosis of convenience. They refused to understand that he needed developmental disability services, rather than incarceration. Instead, Neli was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, where he was punished with long periods of solitary confinement, Taser shocks, and the use of a full-body restraint chair for hours on end for behaviors related to his disabilities.
As Neli languished in prison, The Arc joined forces with Neli’s attorneys and a coalition of advocacy and racial justice organizations to demand justice. In 2015, we won a conditional pardon for Neli. But he was forced to live in a court-supervised residential setting, where he was treated harshly by staff who lacked understanding of autism. He lived in fear that he could be sent back to jail at any time.
The Arc and the coalition never gave up the fight.
In 2021, Neli was finally granted a full, unconditional pardon and provided with the disability support services he should have received in the first place. Neli is on his way to living a full—and free—life.
But our work is not done. The sad reality is that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families are too often forgotten and left behind in our society. Many like Neli are denied justice, and frequently hurt, due to the unjust biases of people who simply fail to recognize and respect their humanity.
For more than 70 years, The Arc has worked to change that as the only nationwide advocacy and social services nonprofit that works solely on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We work across the criminal legal system to support victims, suspects/defendants, and incarcerated persons with disabilities to receive the accommodations they need and are entitled to while navigating the system.
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