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Congress Approves Criminal Justice Reform; Win for People with Disabilities

Congress overwhelmingly approved a bill that will reform parts of the criminal justice system. (nimz/Twenty20)
Congress overwhelmingly approved a bill that will reform parts of the criminal justice system. (nimz/Twenty20)
December 21, 2018

BISMARK, N.D. – The criminal justice reform bill making its way to President Trump's desk will help thousands of people with disabilities re-enter their communities.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 32 percent of people in federal prisons and 40 percent of all people in jail in the United States have at least one disability.

The First Step Act passed by Congress on Thursday would expand job training and early release programs, and reduce minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders incarcerated in federal prisons.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of the group RespectAbility, says those reforms will help thousands of people with disabilities successfully leave incarceration.

"It means they'll be able to go back into the community and hopefully get a job, have their talents used in the community and to have a better future," she states.

The bill sailed through the Senate and House with overwhelming support in both chambers. Trump is expected to sign the bill in the coming days.

Although the First Step Act only would apply to the 180,000 people in federal prisons, Mizrahi points out that the bipartisan support the bill has received from both sides of the aisle in Washington could help spur criminal justice reforms at all levels of government.

"While this one bill is certainly no panacea for all the different issues, it gives us a platform where people at the state, local or federal level can problem solve together in a bipartisan manner," she states.

There are more than 2 million people in prisons and jails in the United States, including more than 750,000 with disabilities.

Mizrahi notes that further reforms are needed to reduce the number of people being incarcerated.

She says underfunded schools, predominantly attended by children of color, often lack the resources to diagnose and teach those with learning disorders or other disabilities.

"Then they get really behind in their work, and then they're so far behind that they drop out or they're expelled,” she points out. “This is what leads people into the school-to-prison pipeline in the first place."

Only 61 percent of young people with disabilities graduate from high school, compared with 81 percent of those without disabilities.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ND