Young people with disabilities more likely to be arrested

(Reuters Health) - More than half of blacks in the U.S. with disabilities will be arrested by the time they reach their late 20s, a new study finds.

In general, people with mental or physical disabilities were 13 percent more likely to be arrested as juveniles or young adults than people free of disability, according to the report in the American Journal of Public Health.

For blacks, disability widened the chances of arrest by 17 percent, and more than 55 percent of blacks with disabilities were arrested by age 28.

Author Erin J. McCauley, a policy analysis and management doctoral student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, called the arrest rate for blacks with disabilities “horrifyingly high.”

“It almost makes the experience of arrest fundamental to the experience of being black and having a disability, when more than half of the group experiences arrest,” she said in a phone interview.

She called for policies to be changed and interventions to be developed to address increased vulnerabilities facing racial minorities with disabilities. Police training emphasizing de-escalation and minimizing the use of force might better protect vulnerable community members, she said.

Using data from a national survey of nearly 9,000 Americans born between 1980 and 1984, McCauley estimated the cumulative probably of arrest by age 28 for people who considered themselves, or whose parents considered them, disabled. Disabilities ranged from blindness, deafness, missing a body part or having an emotional or learning problem.

Nearly one-third of those surveyed had been arrested by age 28. For those with disabilities, the chances of being arrested rose to 43 percent, but the risk fell disproportionately on young people of color.

Blacks with disabilities were at greatest risk of arrest – nearly double the 28 percent risk of whites with disabilities. More than 46 percent of Hispanics with disabilities could expect to be arrested as children or young adults, the study found.

“The experience of arrest is very high for people with disabilities, especially people of color with disabilities, and steps need to be taken to ameliorate this,” McCauley said.

Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist and founder of Cure Violence at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, told Reuters Health by email that the study supports the view that not every situation requires a law enforcement response; what may be needed instead is a rapid response from the health and social-service sectors of communities.

“Law enforcement may not understand what they see or too rapidly interpret speech or actions,” Slutkin said. “Or they may not have the luxury or be able to take the time to understand what is going on.”

“This is a form of violence that can be cured through understanding . . . and through education and training,” he said.

Though the study describes the problem, it wasn’t designed to explain it.

“We can hint (that) we believe it’s because of racism or structural inequality, but we can’t claim that that is the case based on this data,” McCauley said.

SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, online October 19, 2017.

This version of the story corrects the affiliation of Dr. Slutkin in para 11.