For years, activists, politicians, journalists, and astute observers have pointed out that Black people are disproportionately stopped by the police — but other marginalized identities are at risk for unduly high rates of arrest as well. One researcher wanted to explore the impact of a sometimes-invisible aspect of a person’s identity on their interaction with police officers. Erin J. McCauley, a doctoral candidate in policy analysis and management at Cornell University, analyzed the connection between disability and arrest rates in a new study, and the results are troubling.
“It is pretty commonly discussed that there is an overrepresentation of people with disabilities — especially serious mental illnesses — in our jails and prisons,” McCauley tells Bustle via email. “After hunting around in the existing literature, I had a hard time finding studies that explored how common this experience in when looking at those with disabilities as the population instead of those who are incarcerated.” In other words, the data on people with disabilities who are arrested simply wasn’t there — so McCauley had to go out and find it herself.
The study, which was published in the American Journal for Public Health, found that people with disabilities had a 43 percent probability of being arrested by age 28. Those without a disability had a lower probability (30 percent) of getting arrested by the same age. Researchers in this study included emotional, physical, cognitive, and sensory disabilities in their analysis. The study did not look at arrest rates for LGBTQ people because “there are some serious data limitations which have limited my pursuit of the question,” McCauley says.
Study researchers coined the term “disability penalty” to describe the added risk of arrest those with disabilities face, but the disability penalty was not the same for all races and genders. Black men with disabilities were at a higher risk than any other group; 55 percent had been arrested by age 28. In comparison, only 27.5 percent of white people with no disability had been arrested by their 28th birthday.
The results of the study even surprised the head researcher. “I expected to find that people with disabilities would be more likely to be arrested, but I was frankly shocked by how large the disparity was,” McCauley stated in a press release. “These findings really point to a problem. For people with disabilities, particularly…