Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc of the United States in the Huffington Post.


Our Criminal Justice System Anything but Just for People with Disabilities


Peter Berns
CEO The Arc

Ethan Saylor was like many men his age. He enjoyed going out with friends to a movie or a karaoke bar, he was a loving big brother to his two siblings, he adored his mother, and he happened to have Down syndrome. What is heart wrenching is that to those who didn’t know Ethan personally, he is most commonly remembered for his tragic and untimely death. Ethan lost his life at the hands of three off duty sheriff deputies while being evicted from a movie theatre following a dispute over an unpaid movie ticket. His larynx was crushed during the confrontation, and his last words were cries for his mother. Ethan had no previous history of violence. His death was senseless and avoidable.

More than three years ago this tragedy turned a national spotlight to a critical problem facing our criminal justice system ­ the lack of training for law enforcement on how to safely and effectively interact with people with  intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). Yet, here we are today, and current drafts of criminal justice reform legislation, from both houses of Congress, make little mention of people with disabilities and no mention of the I/DD population. Sadly, we have even more reminders of the holes in our system as we look to Florida where Charles Kinsey, a direct support professional for people with I/DD, was shot in a situation involving one of the individuals he served, Arnaldo Rios.

How is this possible? The numbers paint a bleak picture. As many as 1 in 5 prisoners self­ identify as having a cognitive disability. Yet the majority of law enforcement, corrections, probation and parole officers, and court personnel receive little or no training on interacting with this population. It’s astonishing to think that Ethan’s life could have been saved if law enforcement training on I/DD was mandatory at the time, or how many lives could be saved if this training is required in the future.

The consequences of this knowledge gap are dire. Suspects with I/DD are prone to give false confessions, resulting in innocent people going to prison.


tony signature
Tony Paulauski
Executive Director
The Arc of Illinois
20901 S. LaGrange Rd. Suite 209
Frankfort, IL 60423
815-464-1832 (OFFICE)
815-464-1832 (CELL)