ACLU Guide Urges Advocacy for People with Disabilities on Probation and Parole

The American Civil Liberties Union released a guide recently, outlining steps that defense attorneys can take to ensure people with disabilities have an equal opportunity to successfully complete probation and parole.

Reducing Barriers: A Guide to Obtaining Reasonable Accommodations for People with Disabilities on Supervision” highlights significant barriers that people with disabilities face to navigating their supervision requirements, including difficulties understanding their supervision obligations, effectively communicating with their supervision officer, attending frequent meetings, completing mandated treatment programs, maintaining employment, and keeping track of all these requirements. The guide also offers potential reasonable accommodations — required by federal disability laws — that would give people with disabilities an equal chance to complete these requirements.

Accommodations are critical, as supervision violations can trigger incarceration — potentially for years. In 2017, nearly half of all prison admissions in the U.S. stemmed from supervision violations.

“People with disabilities on probation or parole face a maze of complicated rules, restrictions, and requirements that they must adhere to in order to keep their freedom. For too many, these rules are simply impossible to understand and follow,” said Allison Frankel, staff attorney with the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project. “Whether it’s plain-language explanations of supervision rules, a qualified interpreter, or flexible appointment scheduling, accommodations are essential to ensuring people with disabilities can meet their supervision requirements and remain in their communities.”

Nearly 4 million people in the U.S. are on probation or parole. People with disabilities are overrepresented in this population. In 2019, one in five people under supervision had a mental health disability — twice the rate of the general population. Rates of substance use disorder, cognitive disabilities, and physical health conditions are also higher among those under supervision.

The Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act require authorities administering supervision to make reasonable accommodations that afford people with disabilities an equal opportunity to successfully complete supervision. But in reality, probation and parole departments nationwide regularly fail to assess whether and what types of accommodations people need, and to provide necessary accommodations. These ongoing violations of federal law set people with disabilities up for failure.

Defense attorneys can play a critical role in ensuring that people on supervision have needed accommodations that supervision authorities are obligated to provide. The guide recommends that defense attorneys ask their clients about their accommodation needs and advocate with relevant supervision authorities to obtain needed accommodations before supervision conditions are imposed, throughout the supervision process, and during violation proceedings. More broadly, the guide also urges defense lawyers and other advocates to press supervision departments to implement systemic reforms, including:

  • Enacting systems to affirmatively assess people’s accommodation needs and provide needed accommodations.
  • Adopting “universal design” accommodations that would help everyone on supervision, such as plain-language explanations of supervision rules, assistance getting to required locations, and flexible meeting times, locations, and frequencies based on people’s needs.

“The United States puts far too many people under oppressive forms of correctional control for far too long. Ultimately, we must limit the power of the carceral state, and shift resources from supervision and incarceration into voluntary, community-based supports and services that help people thrive in their communities. Expanding access to accommodations can significantly decrease the burdens of supervision as we work toward that goal,” Frankel added.

The guide is available here:

A 2020 ACLU/Human Rights Watch report on how probation and parole feed mass incarceration is available here:

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