From unnecessary confrontations with police to uninformed judges and needless incarceration, autistic people in Pennsylvania say the criminal justice system has long failed to meet their needs.
Now, after a series of court-led panels, officials in the justice system and activists are working on reforms.
They share a common goal, but questions remain on where reforms should start and what their scope should be — whether change should be incremental and start with the courts, specifically judges, or should be more immediate and do more to keep individuals out of the justice system.
“The big issue here is, we're all part of a larger reformation, but how do we start? What is our ground zero?” said state Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty, who has helped lead the initiative. “Because this, this is revolutionary.”
At present, there’s no way to know how many autistic people are even in Pennsylvania jails, leaving them vulnerable at every level of the justice system. Making progress will require cooperation from numerous stakeholders, including police, judges and corrections officials.
Here’s where the push for reform stands in Pennsylvania and in Allegheny County.
How the Pennsylvania court system fails autistic people
Cori Frazer, a licensed social worker and executive director of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, has heard too many stories of autistic people lost in the criminal justice system.
Autism generally impacts an individual’s social skills and ability to communicate, leading them to act and express themselves in unique ways.
This can escalate to autistic people being arrested, convicted and incarcerated by a justice system ill-equipped to support them. A failure to understand their needs might mean they’re punished for trying to comfort themselves in a traumatizing environment.
“There's this kind of reliance on the justice system, in lieu of supports,” said Frazer, who is autistic. They pointed to the case of Neli Latson, an autistic man who spent 11 years incarcerated in Virginia after someone called the police on him for standing outside his public library. “Prison is not an appropriate placement for people who can be served in the community.”
Luciana Randall, executive director of Autism Connection of PA, said court procedures haven’t traditionally accommodated the needs of autistic people, such as allowing advocates to join them before a judge, or reducing stimuli in a courtroom. And when autistic individuals are incarcerated, their diagnosis doesn’t always follow them, meaning they don’t receive the treatments and support they’re entitled to.
Autistic individuals often enter the criminal justice system without a diagnosis, Frazer said, and bias in the evaluation process makes diagnoses especially rare in low-income communities and communities of color. That results in autistic people lacking crucial care.
“That's the scariest part,” Frazer said. “I don't know what it's like inside because we lose people.”
Randall said her organization has connected multiple autistic individuals and their advocates in Allegheny County with lawyers who were better equipped to handle their cases after they initially had inadequate accommodations.
One sibling of an autistic person who got “caught up in the legal system,” speaking anonymously with PublicSource to protect their privacy, described a harrowing, months-long process in which police officers, lawyers and other officials were slow or unable to accommodate their brother’s needs. This was further complicated by the fact their brother had not yet received an autism diagnosis, so the family had to pay out of pocket for an evaluation.
Though the charges against their brother were ultimately dropped, the process was traumatic and had lasting effects on his life, the individual said.
At the same time, they noted that their brother, unlike many other autistic people, was lucky to have found legal representation that understood his identity and, along with the support of his family, helped him reach a positive outcome.
Steps toward reform
The push to keep autistic people out of prisons has spanned decades. But for Dougherty, it began in the early 2000s when he was a judge in Philadelphia family court.
He had to determine whether to consider a child delinquent in a case he was hearing. But during his questioning, the child didn’t seem to cooperate. He’d fidget with his hands, avert his gaze or turn his back, to the point that Dougherty began to grow frustrated.
“At one point, the mom asked to see me sidebar, and at that point she shared with me that her child was on the (autism) spectrum,” Dougherty said.
Realizing he had been ill-equipped to recognize autism in the courtroom, Dougherty worked to bring autism education and training to the other judges in Philadelphia’s family court system. That awareness, he said, translated to better accommodations, such as allowing remote testimony, permitting the presence of a parent or advocate or reducing stimuli like light or sound in the courtroom.
Since his election to the state Supreme Court in 2015, Dougherty has tried to spread reform efforts statewide. Earlier this year, he helped launch a series of panels to gather feedback from activists, judges, lawyers and experts across the state. The final stop in Dougherty’s virtual tour, in June, centered around Allegheny County and Southwestern Pennsylvania.
That panel echoed themes Dougherty said he’d heard across the state: the need for reform beyond courtroom accommodations, a database to identify autistic individuals in the justice system and alternative sentencing options.
Since then, discussions have been held at both the state level and in Allegheny County to put ideas into action.
Allegheny County President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark told PublicSource that more police representatives, judges and corrections officials need to be brought to the table before they can move on bigger reforms, like creating designated housing for autistic individuals in the county jail. In the meantime, she hopes to tackle “low-hanging” projects like reworking the jail intake forms and the ongoing addition of autism-friendly sensory spaces to county court buildings.
“One of the things that I am looking at sort of globally, courtwide, is just really increasing access to justice in all types of ways,” Clark said.
Randall, who has been part of those conversations, said no target dates have been set for any specific reforms. Still, she feels a sense of urgency in the discussions taking place.
Dougherty met with the state Department of Human Services, AJ Drexel Autism Institute out of Drexel University and Pennsylvania-based autism services collaborative ASERT to discuss feedback gathered in the panel. So far, those stakeholders have been leaning toward creating a task force to look into reform in greater depth.
Dougherty said he’s wary of putting off action for more talk. But at the same time, he understands the need for carefully planned reforms.
“I don't want to meet just to meet, I need concrete results,” he said. “There's an ever pressing issue of promptness, but I also want to make sure that we're not jumping the gun and that what we create is sustainable.”
That is not to say no reforms are in progress. Dougherty’s team have begun discussions with the state’s Minor Judiciary Board as part of an effort to make autism education a part of mandatory training for new judges, according to a spokesperson for Dougherty.
The judge noted that the panels, which saw over 12,000 attendees during their run, have helped create a network of officials across the state dedicated to enacting autism-focused reforms.
That includes the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. During the Western Pennsylvania panel, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Commander Christyn Zett said the bureau has incorporated intellectual and behavioral disorders into its implicit bias training.
“The time is going to come we’re going to interact with individuals who are not going to be able to communicate with us exactly the way we expect,” Zett said. “In the moments of crisis, we don’t always have time to prepare.”
What activists want to see
While advocates like Randall and Frazer have said judicial reforms are overdue, they also contend the best way to rework the justice system for autistic people is to minimize their interactions with it altogether.
To them, that means a larger reimagining of the justice system’s response to autism — an approach that is in line with a wider push to reform policing and criminal justice in America.
“The big problem with those panels is that they're kind of framing it as an autism problem,” Frazer said. “The court doesn't know autism. The problem that exists is the court has an ableism problem.”
Randall pointed to the creation of a liaison position at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services as an example of a reform that should be replicated nationwide. The liaison is responsible for cross-checking newly incarcerated people with those registered for disability services in Pennsylvania and bringing the information to the District Attorney’s office to better inform their decisions.
Frazer cautions that the first priority should be reducing interactions with police — alternative sentencing might seem beneficial, they said, but could result in “institutionalization instead of incarceration.”
“First of all, how do we reduce police encounters with autistic people? Because we know those turn deadly,” Frazer said. They described their own experience being confronted by an officer after their friend and roommate, who is also autistic, was jumping in puddles. The officer only left once Frazer presented their social work license.
“And then once people are in jails and prisons, how do we make sure that their rights are protected, that we can identify them as autistic people and those of us on the outside can figure out where they are.”
Michelle Middlemiss, an autistic reform advocate, has trained officers in Western Pennsylvania on how to interact with autistic individuals and is working to build a voluntary database of autistic individuals for officers to consult.
It’s not just so the police aren’t “going in blind” to confrontations with autistic people, Middlemiss said — it’s about giving police no excuses for harming people out of ignorance.
The reform movement still faces an uphill battle, but Jamie Upshaw, founder of Pittsburgh-based Autism Urban Connections, said there’s never been more momentum.
“We have more people who want to learn, who want to know,” said Upshaw, who has an autistic child. “So I do see good coming.”
Chris Hippensteel is a PublicSource editorial intern. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Catherine Taipe.