The People vs. Eunice Baker
I. General Information on Mental Retardation
II. Mental Retardation and the Law
- Why is there a disproportionate number of people with mental retardation in the incarcerated population?
- Why is it often difficult to provide mentally retarded defendants with justice?
- Why is it so important that the criminal justice system understand Mental Retardation?
- Why are mentally retarded individuals less likely to be granted parole?
- What is being done to address the injustices faced by mentally retarded offenders?
Mental retardation is a disability that affects approximately 2.5 to 3 percent of the general population. It does not discriminate - people of different racial, ethnic, educational, social and economic backgrounds can all be affected.
According to the American Association of Mental Retardation, the disability, which originates before the age of 18, is characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as demonstrated by conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills. Intellectual functioning refers to the person's general mental capability - their ability to reason, solve problems, comprehend ideas, and learn quickly. This is often measured using a standardized Intelligent Quotient (IQ) test administered by a professional. A person's adaptive skills are the daily living skills that they need in order to successfully live, work and play in the community. Some examples are communication, self-care, social skills, leisure, health and safety, self-direction, reading, writing, basic math, community use and work. These kinds of strengths and deficiencies may be determined by formal testing, observations, interviewing important people in the person's life, interviewing the person him or h erself, and interacting with the individual in his or her daily life.
A person is usually considered to be mentally retarded if he or she meets three criteria: the condition is present before the age of 18; his or her IQ is below 70-75; and significant limitations exist in two or more of the adaptive skill areas.
More recently called borderline intellectual functioning, borderline mental retardation is a classification of mental ability that covers people with I.Q. scores in the range of 71 to 84 and only slight impairments in adaptive behavior.
An important thing to remember when discussing intelligence is that any obtained IQ score must always be considered in light of its standard error of measurement, appropriateness, and consistency with administration guidelines. Flexibility in the I.Q. standard is important because tests given at different times may show slight variations due to differences in the tests and because of testing error. Since the standard error of measurement for most IQ tests is approximately 5, it is impossible to give a precise ceiling for mental retardation (hence the range of 70-75 given above).
According to The ARC, a national organization of and for people with mental retardation and their families, the disability can be caused by any condition which impairs development of the brain before birth, during birth, or in the childhood years. Although several hundred different causes of mental retardation have been discovered, the reason for the disability still remains unknown in more than one-third of the people it affects.
More than five hundred genetic diseases are associated with mental retardation. Some of these are the result of gene abnormalities that are inherited from parents, others are the result of an infection during pregnancy, and still others are the result of factors such as overexposure to x-rays. One example is Fragil X syndrome, a single gene disorder that happens sporadically and is the leading inherited cause of mental retardation.
Problems during pregnancy can also be blamed for the disability. A pregnant woman's malnutrition, illness, or use of alcohol and drugs are just a few of many potential risks. The unusual stress of premature birth and low birth weight are also factors that can predict serious problems.
Still other reasons for the disability are the result of impaired development during a person's youth. Childhood diseases such as whooping cough and measles can damage the brain, as can accidents such as a blow to the head, or environmental toxins that damage the brain and nervous system.
Finally, research has suggested that poverty and cultural deprivation may also play a role. Children in disadvantaged areas may suffer from factors that lead to mental retardation, such as malnutrition and inadequate medical care. In addition, children in poor families may not have access to many of the day-to-day experiences and activities afforded other youngsters - such under-stimulation can potentially result in irreversible damage, thereby causing mental retardation.
This is a difficult time for both people with disabilities who get involved in the criminal justice system and for the police officers who want to assist them. People with disabilities who have lived in institutional settings, group homes or in their own homes with parents or caregivers who did not encourage their independence have traditionally not been given the opportunity to make their own decisions or taught how to recognize potential criminal involvement. Consequently, they often unintentionally become involved in criminal situations, usually as a victim or as a scapegoat who is used by others to carry out criminal behavior.
The vast majority of people with mental retardation never break the law. Nevertheless, mentally retarded people may be disproportionately represented in America's prisons. Although people with mental retardation constitute somewhere between 2.5 and 3 percent of the U.S. population, experts estimate they may constitute up to 10 percent of the prison population. The disproportionate number of persons with mental retardation in the incarcerated population most likely reflects the fact that people with this impairment who break the law are more likely to be caught, more likely to confess and be convicted, and less likely to be paroled.
It may also be that some of the people with mental retardation who are serving prison sentences are innocent, but they confessed to crimes they did not commit because of their characteristic suggestibility and desire to please authority figures. Low intelligence and limited adaptive skills mean that people with mental retardation often miss social "cues" that other adults understand. They may act in ways that seem suspicious, even when they have done nothing wrong. When questioned by authority figures, they often smile inappropriately, fail to remain still when ordered to do so, or act agitated and furtive when they should be calm and polite.
People with mental retardation may also engage in criminal behavior because of their characteristically poor impulse control, difficulty with long-term thinking, and difficulty handling stressful and emotionally fraught situations. They may not be able to predict the consequences of their acts or resist a strong emotional response. The homicides committed by people with mental retardation acting alone are almost without exception unplanned, spur of the moment acts of violence motivated by panic, fear, or anger, often committed when another crime, such as a robbery, went wrong.
Attributes common to mental retardation may also contribute to criminal behavior. Many people with mental retardation are picked upon, victimized and humiliated because of their disability. A desire for approval and acceptance and the need for protection can lead a person with mental retardation to do whatever others tell him. People with mental retardation can often fall prey when people with greater intelligence decide to take advantage of them. Many of the cases in which people with mental retardation have committed murder involved other participants -- who did not have mental retardation -- and/or occurred in the context of crimes that were planned by other people. Low intellectual skills and limited planning capacities also mean that people with mental retardation are more likely than people of normal intelligence to get caught if they commit crimes. As a result, they make good "fall guys" for more sophisticated criminals.
When mentally retarded individuals come into contact with the criminal justice system, they have few organized resources to turn to for information, training, technical assistance, and referral. Most attorneys, judges, law enforcement personnel, forensic evaluators, and citizens on juries lack adequate and appropriate knowledge to apply standards of due process in a way that provides mentally retarded defendants with justice.
If a person is so profoundly retarded as to be deemed mentally incompetent, he or she will not be required to stand trial, yet in practice findings of mental incompetence are rare. This is especially true for people with mild retardation who are still significantly impaired in their ability to understand and protect their rights. The term "mild" is often misleading, as mental retardation - regardless of its severity - has a profound impact on an individual's life, and is especially troublesome when such individuals become involved in the criminal justice system.
Unfortunately, a person with mental retardation may not feel comfortable disclosing that he has a disability due to fear of being devalued. Therefore, authorities in a position to help the defendant may not be able to identify the individual as mentally retarded and therefore do not respond appropriately. Even competent lawyers who are anxious to help their clients may fail to identify their clients' retardation or may be unable to access funds for a psychological evaluation.
Routine screening would be required to identify mental retardation in defendants. But even when a judge suspects a mental disability, he or she cannot usually act on this suspicion because, despite the fact that mentally retarded persons make up at least 4% of the prison populations, there are few provisions to treat them any differently.
irst, it is important that people involved in the criminal justice system understand that mentally retarded defendants, in an attempt to please authority figures, may give incriminating but inaccurate confessions. Many such defendants have been known to falsely confess to crimes or to follow suggestive questioning from the police. Unreliable confessions are perhaps the most likely pitfall for both the suspect and the police. It is obviously not in the interests of the police to obtain false confessions, not only because of the injustice to the accused, but because they then fail to arrest the real criminal and protect society.
Unfortunately, when police are not aware of the potential for false confessions, it is often hard to safeguard against them because people with mental retardation also often waive their Miranda rights without understanding what they are doing. The well known "Miranda warnings" required to be given to an arrestee ("you have the right to remain silent, to have a lawyer, etc.") may not be understood by a person with mental retardation and therefore the offer of a lawyer may be inappropriately refused.
Since persons with mental retardation tend to provide more incriminating evidence to prosecutors than other defendants, they are less successful at plea bargaining. When they go to trial, their testimony may be viewed as less credible because aggressive prosecutors can make them appear unreliable. A defense lawyer must be able to understand and utilize the mental disability of a mentally retarded client to persuade the prosecutor to address such considerations in the plea bargain. Alerting and educating the prosecutor not only to the mental disability itself, but to plans for prospective treatment related to and in correction of any future criminal conduct, could go a long way to having the charges mitigated, suspended in contemplation of dismissal, or having the sentence reduced.
Persons with mental retardation are typically housed with the general prison population, where they are often abused or victimized. They tend to rely on physical responses to physical threats and are thus often reclassified to higher security levels. That, together with a poor record of program participation and an inability to impress parole boards on interview, makes them less likely to be granted parole as early as the average inmate. Once released, mentally retarded persons often have problems meeting their parole requirements and find it more difficult than the average inmate to get a job.
Although the typical mentally retarded offender costs the public more for incarceration than does the average person convicted of similar crimes, only a few cities -- Boston, Fort Worth, and Cleveland among them - have programs that aid the transition of mentally retarded parolees to society. Programs that offer daily structure and work to mentally retarded participants seem to considerably reduce their rearrest rates. The objective of such programs is not to excuse mentally retarded offenders from punishment, but to recognize their special needs and, in doing so, foster their return to law-abiding behavior, thereby saving taxpayers money.
If the potential savings are not enough to induce states to change the way they handle offenders with mental retardation, they are likely to face litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That federal law, signed in 1990, bans discrimination based on disability. In reports interpreting the act, the U.S. Department of Justice staff has made it clear that states cannot ignore the needs of prisoners with mental retardation.