Treating Offenders with Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities

By Shively, Randy | Corrections Today, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Treating Offenders with Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities


Shively, Randy, Corrections Today


Offenders with mental retardation and developmental disabilities (MR/DD) are a growing population in the corrections field due to several important influences. First, deinstitutionalization in the 1970s led to a flood of individuals with MR/DD into the community. They were usually housed in larger group settings such as group homes. As years passed, the wisdom of meeting individual needs in more normal settings, such as family homes, spread. This movement has integrated the population much more in local communities. With this has come growing expectations that this population will behave in a manner expected by all citizens; offensive behavior is quickly noticed and more often prosecuted than in the past.

Second, the offender with MR/DD often has committed a sex offense, and laws have become more stringent in identifying and prosecuting sex offenses. What at one time might have been excused due to a disability is now legally challenged. Also, court personnel are becoming more educated about offenders with MR/DD and better understand when offenders are manipulating the system and using their disability as an excuse. Better questions are asked by prosecutors that highlight the offenders' intent. As a result of the growing population of offenders with MR/DD, there is now a burden of looking for viable treatment options other than prison as the primary sanction. This population typically has done poorly in prison, and nationally, effective treatment while incarcerated has been lacking. Keeping these offenders in the community gives more treatment options to the courts. Treatment can be effective, but takes a knowledge of how the systems of MR/DD, mental health and corrections work. Historically, there has been very little collaboration among the three systems.

Characteristics That Influence Treatment

The population of individuals with MR/DD is characterized as having multiple needs, but with many contradictions. For example, these offenders can be extremely charming, yet very shallow; extremely endearing, yet very domineering; very charismatic, yet actively and passively control people in a variety of situations; very friendly, yet also very ruthless; very cooperative, yet very stubborn and manipulative; and extremely hardworking, yet noncompliant. These contradictions often make treatment a challenge for staff and providers.

According to the American Association of Mental Retardation, mental retardation is defined as a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills originating before age 18. Offenders with retardation are often higher functioning and know they have gross impairments and do not fit in. This often contributes to low self-esteem, depression, poor self-concept, poor body image, insecurity and general feelings of inferiority. With these types of psychological deficits often come personality disorders and mental health problems. These problems can often be severe and require medications. These medications, however, pose a problem because many of the offenders with mental retardation also have some type of substance abuse problem, which further complicates the situation.

Treatment is at times very difficult because gross deficiencies in adaptive behavior occur. These deficiencies make it very hard for these offenders to use community resources and handle such tasks as banking, using public transportation or handling shopping needs. Community deficits typically accompany social skills deficits, where these offenders have difficulty solving problems and dealing with problem situations such as handling a complaint constructively. These social deficits often get this population noticed and often contribute to a variety of crimes. This population has a higher proportion of social crimes such as sexual offending, arson, property damage and burglary compared to the general population of offenders. …

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Treating Offenders with Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities
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