Interview with Lisa Greenman

Lisa Greenman

1. How did you get interested in representing people with mental illness and intellectual/ developmental disabilities? 

I chose to be public defender in the first place in order to help people entangled in our dehumanizing criminal justice system by making sure they received the highest quality legal representation without regard to their financial status. Developing substantive knowledge about disability issues was necessary in order to serve my clients. 

Disability often underlies why a person gets arrested and charged with a crime. People with mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities are frequently arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned–and imprisoned longer–for reasons that directly or indirectly relate to their disabilities. A lawyer well informed about disability issues can often find the client not only greater understanding within the system but sometimes a path leading out of it–one that is beneficial not only to the individual but also to the larger community. Activating disability resources instead of law enforcement strategies is much more effective problem-solving. In addition, in the context of the death penalty work I do, identifying a person’s (often previously undiagnosed) disabilities and explaining their impact on the person’s life can literally be the difference between life and death. 

2. What is it like to navigate the criminal justice system on behalf of an individual with mental illness or intellectual/developmental disability?

As a starting point, people with disabilities must be provided the full benefit of all the traditional tools of criminal defense that any client is entitled to. They must be presumed innocent, have their constitutional rights zealously protected and the government held to its burden at every stage. But a client’s disability adds important work for defense counsel. 

Disability can be implicated not just in the reasons a person comes to the attention of law enforcement, but also in how that person responds once that happens – for example, how they interact with the police, whether they make statements implicating or appearing to implicate themselves (people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to coercion and false confession), whether their consent for a search is truly voluntary, why they may run or resist when detained or physically restrained. In some cases, a disability affects whether a client is competent to stand trial. Other times a person may be competent for trial, but nevertheless “not responsible” for their actions or a disability may reduce their culpability. In custody, a person’s disability may affect their ability to follow rules and demonstrate satisfactory adjustment. People with disabilities have an increased risk of wrongful conviction. Looking out for the role of disability in all these areas is essential to protecting a client’s rights and achieving a just outcome, and without a substantive understanding of the client’s disability, their lawyer can’t investigate these issues, litigate the necessary motions and do the rest of that critical work. 

In addition, knowing the resources available through the disability services system is essential to defense representation of a person with disabilities, both pretrial and, if there is a guilty plea or verdict, after a conviction. Advocacy for these services can result in a client being released pretrial with supports and treatment in place, rather than awaiting trial in jail. Being released pretrial paves the way for a fairer and more favorable resolution at the end of a case. Likewise, if a person is convicted, disability services can be the foundation for meaningful rehabilitation rather than incarceration. Jails and prisons are terrible environments for anyone, but they are especially bad for people with disabilities. In order to avoid such a destructive outcome, the lawyer needs to know the disability systems of support and be able to tailor an individualized plan for a client. Every lawyer doesn’t have to have all of this knowledge on board themselves, but they certainly do need to have a way to access it. 

3. How should the criminal justice system be reformed to meet the needs of people who are mentally ill and/or have developmental disabilities?

Our criminal justice system, with its focus on incarceration as an outcome, does a lot of harm and it doesn’t accomplish much good: not for those who are prosecuted nor for their communities. Neither does the system routinely provide meaningful remedies for the victims of crime. Police, criminal courts, jails and prisons should be our last choice for addressing societal problems. At all levels there should be options other than prosecution and punishment. Instead there should be emphasis, both in the community and in jails and prisons, on providing education, employment and a range of interventions, and those programs must be designed to be accessible to people with disabilities. 

On my wish list: more creative first line responses to crime; greater flexibility in sentencing statutes; a broader range of programs within courts and prosecutors’ offices that divert more people for a wider range of offenses, including violent offenses, out of the criminal system. Approaches that address root causes of arrest and meet needs like housing, employment and education would have a dramatic impact across the board and would be especially beneficial for people with disabilities. Prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges all need training on how disabilities, including “invisible disabilities,” manifest in their settings, to increase awareness and dispel stereotypes. We also need to educate ourselves about the disability-specific resources that will provide alternatives to prosecution and incarceration. 

4. What advice would you give to other lawyers interested in advocating for individuals with disabilities or mental illnesses in the criminal justice system?

Look for partners in the disability community; go outside the silo of the criminal justice system. Find the disability rights advocates in your community, both in legal organizations and in the health and education fields. Find the clinicians, educators and other professionals who work in the disabilities arena. Seek out disability self-advocates, who play important roles in this work, both as lay people and professionals. Many public defender offices have lawyers or even whole divisions with specialized mental health and developmental disability expertise – introduce yourself and ask questions. Connect with your state’s federally funded Protection & Advocacy organization (new window) for information about local resources for people with disabilities. Locate your state’s UCEDD (new window), like the Georgetown UCEDD, to see what expertise and services are available there. Contact organizations that advocate for people with disabilities, like The Arc of the United States (new window) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (new window), which also have local chapters throughout the country.

5. How can someone who is not a lawyer but is passionate about advocating for incarcerated individuals with disabilities get involved?

Consider connecting with an organization that advocates for more humane conditions and rehabilitative programs in juvenile and adult jails and prisons – especially those that confine people from your community – and raise your voice on behalf of people with disabilities who are confined there. Are they receiving needed accommodations? Are they getting the educational and other disability services they are entitled to? Is the programming that is offered to prisoners accessible to them? Is the facility using 22-24 hour solitary confinement (typically referred to in euphemistic terms like “segregation” or “secure housing” or, recently in Virginia, “restorative housing”) to punish prisoners and if so (and it surely it is so), how many of those suffering this cruelty are people with disabilities and how long are they being held in these conditions? 

Include not just mental disabilities but a broad range of disabilities in your questions: are Deaf prisoners able to make video calls to their loved ones? Are written materials provided in a form that blind prisoners can read? Are IEPs implemented for prisoners who are still school age? If the answers are not known, suggest they be researched. Contact your state Protection & Advocacy (P & A) organization. This twice-vulnerable population is within their mission. Ask how your P & A is addressing the needs of people with disabilities in the criminal justice system. Here are a few Washington, DC-focused organizations to consider: our P & A, Disability Rights-DC, has a DC Jail and Prison Advocacy Project (new window). Also check out the Washington Lawyers’ Committee’s DC Prisoners’ Project (new window) and Neighbors for Justice (new window), an organization focusing on the needs of people at the DC Jail. Consider volunteering with the Free Minds Book Club (new window), a wonderful organization that “uses books, creative writing, and peer support to awaken incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youths and adults to their own potential.”