The criminal justice system is filled with gaps in how it navigates and addresses the needs of people with disabilities. In an effort to address this, Kyle Piccola and Ana Martinez are leading education efforts at The Arc of Texas. Utilizing Pathways to Justice®, they are bringing together law enforcement, victim advocates, legal professionals, and others to build relationships and understanding and create safer communities across the state. We chatted with them about the success of the program, how they’ve been able to implement it, and the future of criminal justice reform.
What made you want to focus on criminal justice reform in Texas? Why did you choose Pathways to Justice as one of the vehicles for your efforts?
ANA: People with I/DD experience several disadvantages that make them more vulnerable to becoming involved in the criminal justice system as suspects and victims. A one size fits all approach does not give people with I/DD equal and fair treatment when they come into contact with criminal justice system. Texas is a large state with diverse cultural and socio-economic differences. The Pathways to Justice training provides the opportunity for us to bring together police officers, self-advocates, lawyers and judges, victim service providers and community advocates for a training geared towards the needs of that particular community. Our efforts have begun to create systemic change that sparks legislative initiatives and induces a collective and actionable charge for our state.
Can you tell us about what implementing Pathways to Justice has been like for your chapter, and for your community? Did you face any challenges recruiting community partners in law enforcement or victim services, and how did you overcome them?
KYLE: The community wanted and needed this as much as we did! We built a coalition of partners just as fast as we welcomed the program to Texas. Our Pathways to Justice program has strengthened the relationships we have with existing coalition partners and helped us build relationships with new ones. The response has been extremely positive – both from the professional advocates and individuals seeking the training. Our local law enforcement agencies welcomed the opportunity because they understand well that law enforcement agencies are coming into contact with people with I/DD more and more. Since our first Pathways to Justice training, The Arc of Texas has been included in all of the Austin Police Department’s training curriculum. For first the time, the Austin Police Department has five hours of I/DD specific training for their cadet class.
How has Pathways – along with your other criminal justice advocacy efforts – helped build community awareness of The Arc and its mission?
ANA: Pathways to Justice has vastly raised overall community awareness on the need and desire for people with I/DD to be supported in the community. We’ve built relationships with organizations that were only marginally aware of our work and mission. This year we honored the Travis County Mental Health Public Defenders Office and the Austin Police Department as our Community Partners of the Year at our annual Leadership and Legacy Event. Partnering with Austin Police Department and Travis County allowed us to achieve a broader and more meaningful impact.
Why is important for chapters of The Arc to help lead the way on criminal justice reform for people with I/DD?
ANA: Once an individual with I/DD has a criminal record, success in community life becomes substantially more difficult, especially considering existing barriers in employment, housing, and other basic elements of economic security. An unjustly gained criminal record jeopardizes the capability of an individual with I/DD to lead an independent life, and often ends up costing millions in tax dollars to support an individual through institutional social services. Texas still runs 13 institutions where too many people with I/DD end up because they were never given the supports needed to secure appropriate criminal justice representation. This barrier to an independent life can be lessened if there is sufficient community awareness and training to identify and support people with I/DD, especially when they first come into contact with the law.
What advice would you give to other chapters looking to establish criminal justice initiatives?
KYLE: As soon as people heard that The Arc of Texas was working on issues related to criminal justice, we began to receive a lot of inquiries from self-advocates, families, and advocacy organizations needing support. As your chapter begins to build a criminal justice program, plan for the influx of people needing support. This was not something that I necessarily envisioned having to staff up as quickly as the need arrived.
To bring Pathways to your chapter or find out about other ways to get involved with NCCJD: