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.