Victim or Offender?
People with I/DD Accused of Sex Offending Behaviors

by Leigh Ann Davis

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People with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (I/DD) are overrepresented in today’s criminal justice system as both victims and offenders. For example: 

As Victims:

People with intellectual, cognitive or developmental disabilities get involved in the criminal justice system as victims more often than individuals without disabilities. 

  • Older data show that people with disabilities are 4 to 10 times higher risk of becoming victims of crime when compared to those without disabilities (Sobsey, 1994). 
  • Children with any type of disability are 3.4 times more likely to be abused compared to children without disabilities (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000). 
  • More recent data from the National Crime Victim Survey (2015) found that people with cognitive disabilities experience the highest rates of violent crime (when compared to other types of disabilities such as vision, ambulatory, and hearing disabilities) and that the rate of violent victimization against persons with disabilities is 2.5 times higher than those without disabilities. (See report here)

As Offenders: 

Although many of us may be aware of the increased rates of victimization, we may not be as aware that individuals with I/DD may also be suspects/offenders/inmates within the criminal justice system. 

  • While those with intellectual disability comprise 2% to 3% of the general population, they represent 4% to 10% of the prison population, with an even greater number of those in juvenile facilities and in jails (Petersilia, 2000). 
  • One study that looked at the number of people with disabilities in state and federal prisons found that fewer than 1% of inmates had physical disabilities while 4.2% had intellectual disabilities (Veneziano & Veneziano, 1996). 
  • According to a 2015 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 32% of prisoners and 40% of jail inmates reported having at least one disability. About 2 in 10 prisoners and 3 in 10 jail inmates reported having a cognitive disability (see: https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/dpji1112.pdf)

People with intellectual disabilities are more likely to be arrested, convicted, sentenced to prison and then, victimized in prison. Once in the criminal justice system, these individuals are less likely to receive probation or parole and tend to serve longer sentences due to an inability to understand or adapt to prison rules. Although we don’t have specific data on the numbers of sexual crimes, you may know of cases or stories where someone with I/DD texts a sexual photo to someone, exposes themselves, downloads child pornography, follows someone around the mall, or does not get consent for sexual activity. Let’s explore why this is happening. 

One false belief is that people with intellectual disability commit crimes because they have below-average intelligence. During the early 1900s, some professionals believed that individuals with intellectual disability were predisposed to becoming criminals due to their disability. That belief is no longer held by professionals and the current belief is that there are psychological, and sociological reasons, as well as unique personal experiences, environmental influences and individual differences.

As suspects, individuals with this disability are frequently used by other criminals to assist in law-breaking activities without understanding their involvement in a crime or the consequences of their involvement. They may also have a strong need to be accepted and may agree to help with criminal activities in order to gain friendship. Many individuals unintentionally give misunderstood responses to officers, which increase their vulnerability to arrest, incarceration and possibly execution, even if they committed no crime (Perske, 2003). 

It’s not clear what motivates sexually offensive or criminal behaviors in people with I/DD. Some believe it’s due to impulsivity. Another explanation is the counterfeit-deviance hypothesis which assumes that criminal sexual behavior is caused by a lack of sexual knowledge, poor social skills, limited opportunities, and sexual naivety. https://blog.atsa.com/2018/07/the-assessment-and-treatment-of-sex.html

It’s important to consider how people with I/DD can end up in the criminal justice system as suspects or defendants due to experiencing trauma that goes untreated or a lack of sex education that may result in being placed on a sex offender registry (an issue that is a growing concern and being addressed head on by organizations like Legal Reform for people with I/DD) https://lridd.org/ 

Consider data from the general population found in an Atlantic article: 95% of teen prostitutes and at least one-third of female prisoners were abused as kids. Sexually abused youth are twice as likely to be arrested for a violent offense as adults, are at twice the risk for lifelong mental health issues and are twice as likely to attempt or commit teen suicide.

The sheer amount of trauma experienced by people with I/DD that has never been publicly acknowledged is hard to imagine. Especially when considering the deep and lasting impact it has on people’s lives. Dr. Karyn Harvey, a psychologist and author of “Trauma-Informed Behavioral Interventions: What Works and What Doesn’t” speaks across the country about the need to understand how both “little traumas” and “big traumas” are re-experienced through present day triggers such as being restrained, experiencing a lack of attention, bullying/teasing or inappropriate touching. What has been seen as “problem behaviors” in people with disabilities can be a sign that a trauma was never addressed. In order to experience healing, victims need to feel safe again, have a sense of empowerment in their own lives and deep sense of connection to others. One researcher found that many who committed sexual offenses were victimized sexually, and that their experience as a victim was linked to their later experience as the offender. (Firth, 2001)

Another gaping hole that must be addressed is the lack of sexuality and relationship education among students and adults with disabilities, which is almost looked at as an afterthought when it comes to providing support and services for this population.

Most people with I/DD are just as interested in having romantic and sexual relationships as others without disabilities are, and yet they often have little – if any – access to basic information from parents, teachers and others on this issue. Students with I/DD may be in secluded classrooms which do not offer any form of sexuality education, or they may not be invited to participate in such classes. Some states, such as Virginia, are working on passing legislation mandating that sexuality training be offered to students with disabilities. Without access to such education, and basic information about what is appropriate and what is not, people with I/DD can easily end up in a criminal justice system that does not understand their disability.

Based on the information above, we know that people with I/DD are more at risk of experiencing sexual trauma and are also less likely to receive sex and relationship education in a way that they can understand and retain it. Again, this cannot be said enough: this sets people up for failure, and we must do better to prepare people with disabilities to live in the community by giving them the tools they need to succeed.

We often say that sexuality and healthy relationship education is important in reducing one’s risk of being abused, but we also need to make the connection between sexuality education and lower rates of sexual crimes. Comprehensive sexuality education needs to include topics such as different types of relationships and how you touch and interact in those relationships, social media, internet, pornography, and sexting to help people understand the rules regarding technology and what is legal and illegal.

Lastly, we need to hear stories from people with I/DD about these situations while not shaming them. We can learn from these stories and help others avoid being in the same situations. We all play a vital role and can be part of the solution, no act toward building healthy relationships, healing and justice is too small. 

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Leigh Ann Davis is Director of Criminal Justice Initiatives at The Arc of the United States and directs the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability® (NCCJD®). With over 22 years of experience working at the intersection of developmental disability and criminal justice, she envisioned and secured funding to create The Arc’s NCCJD. She also oversaw the development of NCCJD’s signature training tool, Pathways to Justice®, and works nationally and internationally to create inclusive justice for all.