There is an epidemic in our juvenile justice system right now that all stakeholders including the Ghana government need to work together to address. One study reports that 65 percent of youth involved with the justice system have a disability—that is three times higher than the rate compared to youth without disabilities. Youth with disabilities, including intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), are being incarcerated at higher rates.
Unfortunately, youth with disabilities are dramatically overrepresented in the nation’s prisons and jails today. Studies done by Scaleup Future organization has shown that youth behind bars in in Ghana are nearly three times as likely to report having a disability as the non-incarcerated population, while those in jails are more than four times as likely. Cognitive disabilities—such as Down syndrome, autism, dementia, intellectual disabilities, and learning disorders—are among the most commonly reported.
Youth with disabilities are often deprived of necessary medical care, as well as needed supports, services, and accommodations. This is despite long-standing federal disability rights laws that mandate equal access to programs, services, and activities for all people with disabilities in custody. Poor conditions in jails and prisons and inadequate access to health care and mental health treatment can not only exacerbate existing conditions, but also lead to further physical and mental health problems that individuals did not have prior to incarceration. Many inmates with disabilities are held in solitary confinement—reportedly, in many cases, for their own protection, due to a lack of appropriate alternative accommodations.
For the way forward, we should destigmatize disability. We as a society need to speak openly about disability and mental illness. Let’s stop criminalizing youth and young adults with mental illness or other disabilities and start accommodating them, as is their civil right. Only then will we be able to help millions of children flourish and keep them out of the criminal justice system. Our prison system should also create an environment that accommodates disabilities in any form by providing services and resources.