Exploring The New “Autism in The Courts” Taskforce

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By Anabelle Nietupski, Web Editor

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is beginning to formally address the needs of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other intellectual disabilities through the advocacy of a taskforce aimed at increasing accessibility.[1]  Specifically, issues stem “[f]rom unnecessary confrontations with police to uninformed judges and needless incarceration” leaving “autistic people in Pennsylvania say[ing] the criminal justice system has long failed to meet their needs.”[2]

It has been noted that in many court systems, including the Pennsylvania Court System, there has been an inequity of resources and “bias in the evaluation process makes diagnoses especially rare in low-income communities and communities of color,” resulting in many individuals never being formally diagnosed with ASD.[3] Thus, “[a]t 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. “[4]

A press release dated February 1st 2022 formally announced the trajectory of the “Autism in the Courts” taskforce, and their intention to improve accessibility for the “one in 46 children and one in 59 Pennsylvanians” that have been diagnosed with ASD. [5] As of January 1st 2019, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had 200,778 pending civil cases and 75,633 pending criminal cases, spanning throughout the counties, at various levels.[6]  With such a large amount of people engaging with the Pennsylvania Court System daily, undoubtedly some of them with ASD and other intellectual disabilities, such a taskforce could make a significant difference in the accessibility of the justice system in Pennsylvania. 

A common concern regarding the implementation of advocacy on behalf of any marginalized group arises when those distanced from the marginalized group seek to advocate for them, separating the voices of those who are marginalized from the voices of the individuals acting. Individuals on the autism spectrum often experience difficulty with communication, making it even more important for leaders to listen.[7] Looking to the philosophy, authority, and methodology of the taskforce, the question to consider is will their advocacy improve the way individuals with ASD and other intellectual disabilities engage with the Pennsylvania court system? 

The taskforce answers this, as identified in the February 1st press release, as they express their intention to focus “on providing increased training opportunities for judges, helping further identify gaps in the system for individuals with autism and intellectual disabilities and creating a local roadmap to resources and services.” [8] The taskforce began by addressing the parameters of their advocacy, determining “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. “[9]

However, there are concerns about what the taskforce has done in their parameters. Seasoned advocates, like Cori Frazer, a licensed social worker and executive director of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, often take issue with the typical framing of advocacy efforts aimed at those on the autism spectrum. Frazer noted, “[t]he big problem … is that they’re kind of framing it as an autism problem …The court doesn’t know autism. The problem that exists is the court has an ableism problem.”[10] Frazier also stated that common areas of miscommunication are of utmost importance for the taskforce, as “[a]utism 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.”[11] Without consistent diagnosis, advocates find difficulty even just locating individuals in need of intervention, especially once they enter the prison system. “That’s the scariest part,” Frazer said. “I don’t know what it’s like inside because we lose people.”[12]

According to Allegheny County President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, the taskforce has limited tangible reach until more people, from various parts of the Pennsylvania justice system, are brought into the conversation.[13] Clark stated, “more police representatives, judges and corrections officials need to be brought to the table before [the taskforce] can move on[to] bigger reforms, like creating designated housing for autistic individuals in the county jail.”[14] Yet, Clark also acknowledged her own potential reach, explaining that “[i]n 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.”[15]

Six “Statewide/Regional Autism Roundtable” events were held from November 2020 to June 2021 to gather information to focus the efforts of the taskforce.[16] A lengthy list of qualified panelists were involved with the events, including: Nina Wall MSS, LSW, both the Director of the Bureau of Supports for Autism and Special Populations and a parent of an adult living with ASD, and Ardhika Aziz, a neuroscientist on the autism spectrum who specializes in autism research.[17] State Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty, a leader in this initiative, “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.”[18] Dougherty felt the takeaways from the panel discussion were clear, continually hearing participants express “the need for reform beyond courtroom accommodations, [including] a database to identify autistic individuals in the justice system and alternative sentencing options.”[19]

The “Autism in the Courts” taskforce is not the only group concerned with the accessibility of the Pennsylvania court system for those on the autism spectrum. The Office of Developmental Programs (ODP), in collaboration with retired Judge William F. Ward of Allegheny County, empowered the ASERT Collaborative to create a “Justice Process & Intervention Opportunities Map.”[20] This map illustrates how the criminal justice and court system should respond to situations involving individuals with intellectual disabilities.[21] Important points of intervention are identified at different stages, including: community services/pre-system entry; entry into the system; pre-trial services & prosecution; preliminary procedures & adjudication; sentencing/sanctions; corrections; and re-integration/re-entry.[22]

            The Pennsylvania Supreme Court appears to have taken tremendous steps to include both experts, individuals diagnosed with ASD, and family members of those diagnosed with ASD and other intellectual disabilities in their pioneering of an “Autism in the Courts” taskforce “focused on issues affecting justice-involved individuals with autism and intellectual disabilities.”[23] Hopefully, individuals with autism spectrum disorder will soon see improvements stemming from the work of the taskforce. Advocates are eager to see the taskforce’s progress, as “judicial reforms are overdue,” keeping in mind that “the best way to rework the justice system for autistic people is to minimize their interactions with it altogether.”[24]

[1] See Press Release, Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Creates Autism in the Courts Taskforce (Feb. 1, 2022), https://www.pacourts.us/Storage/media/pdfs/20220201/164135-autismtaskforce.pdf.

[2] Chris Hippensteel, The PA Justice System Often Fails Autistic People. Can These Activists and Judges Bring Reform?, Public Source (Aug. 30, 2021), https://www.publicsource.org/the-pa-justice-system-often-fails-autistic-people-can-these-activists-and-judges-bring-reform/.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] See Press Release, Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

[6] Thomas D. Barr, 2019 Caseload Statistics of the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (Oct. 2, 2020), https://www.pacourts.us/Storage/media/pdfs/20210205/174304-caseloadstatisticsreport2019.pdf.

[7] See Press Release, Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

[8] Id.

[9] Hippensteel, The PA Justice System Often Fails Autistic People. 

[10] Id. 

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Hippensteel, The PA Justice System Often Fails Autistic People.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Autism and the Courts, The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania, https://www.pacourts.us/learn/autism-and-the-courts (last visited May 23, 2022).

[17] Id.

[18] Hippensteel, The PA Justice System Often Fails Autistic People.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id. 

[22] Id. 

[23] See Press Release, Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

[24] Hippensteel, The PA Justice System Often Fails Autistic People.

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