The Intellectually Disabled Cannot Be Cured

When the rules for competence to stand trial were crafted, there was neither concern nor thought about the intellectually challenged.  They were then called “retarded,” which has since fallen out of favor though it provided a clearer understanding of what that challenge was.  It meant a person whose intelligence was below a certain level, 70 on an IQ Test.

Not all intellectually challenged defendants were incompetent. Some could understand the proceedings and assist in their own defense, but some couldn’t.  They lacked the capacity.  The rules, however, were created for the protection of a defendant’s rights, to assure that a defendant wouldn’t be put on trial without the ability to defend himself.  Like so many rules, they seemed like a good idea at the time, only to later be perverted to serve a different master.

It’s one thing when the rules were applied to the insane, with the potential that they might improve with therapy and medication to the point where they could be competent. But when applied to the intellectually challenged, they reflected systemic ignorance.  The mentally retarded do not get unretarded; they cannot be “cured” because they aren’t ill.  For better of worse, they are what they are. And what they are is intellectually disabled, and they will be for the rest of their lives.

Dan Sullivan writes in the Tampa Bay Times of the plight of Dreek Drayton.

He never faced trial. No jury ever convicted him. And ultimately, a judge dismissed the charges against him.

Yet, year after year, state authorities held on to him based largely on allegations from an accuser who would eventually refuse to testify.

Most anyone else would have walked free.

But Drayton, 55, isn’t like most people. He is intellectually disabled. And in a court of law, that makes all the difference.

Almost a decade of incarceration without trial or conviction, because he was caught in the Catch-22 of the system.  On the one hand, he was found incapable of assisting in his own defense. On the other, he was found a danger based upon the unproven allegations against him.  So he couldn’t be tried, but he couldn’t be released. Cool trick, right?

The U.S. Supreme Court has mandated that in order to face trial, a defendant must understand the charges against him and be capable of assisting in his own defense. Drayton’s intellectual disabilities made that impossible, a judge ruled. His competence would have to be restored before he could get a trial.

Yeah, well, intellectual disability doesn’t quite work that way.  If normal intelligence could be “restored,” I’m pretty sure most people would have done so before they reached the point of prosecution.  Indeed, a lot of people work very hard to help the intellectually challenged to be the best they can be, but the one thing they cannot change is the IQ. Nobody is all that thrilled to be retarded.

While the intellectually challenged can be trained to perform tasks, they cannot be taught to understand. They can be made functional; they cannot be made smarter.

Per Sullivan, there are “nearly 100” intellectually challenged people in the Florida system.  The feigned nod to due process is the piece that reveals the joke:

By law, a judge must review their cases each year to determine, based on the nature of the original unproven charge, if the men are still too dangerous to release.

If the intellectual challenge doesn’t change (and it can’t), and the unproven allegations against the defendant don’t change (and how could they?), it’s dog and pony show to give the appearance of procedural due process where, by definition, there can be none.  At least judicial economy is respected, limiting these hearings to a minute or two. Waste not, want not.

Naturally, the constitutionality of essentially indefinite detainment is different in Florida, the state where they were so bent executing the intellectually challenged that officials who thought standard deviation should be a crime fought to kill the retarded.

The right to a trial by jury is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, spelled out in the Sixth Amendment and reiterated in the 14th. A landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1972, Jackson vs. Indiana, affirmed that states cannot indefinitely detain someone based solely on a finding of incompetence to stand trial.

State officials insist that the law in Florida meets constitutional standards.

It would be wrong in Florida to indefinitely detain the mentally retarded, but there is nothing wrong, in the state’s view, with holding them until the end of their potential criminal sentence: life. See? It’s definite. It ends when they do. Problem solved.

Much as with mental illness, most people have no real grasp of what it means to be mentally challenged.  They perceive these people as unworthy, throwaways whose life in prison isn’t any loss to their families and society.  The fact that they are human beings, with feelings even if not intelligence, eludes many, particularly in Florida.  They are every bit as worthy of living a happy life as anyone else.

So in the name of protecting their rights, the system has subverted them and created a hole from which they can’t emerge.  For those who prefer platitudes to reality, this is how beautiful, empty phrases like “the right to assist in their own defense” end up meaning life imprisonment.  But then, isn’t it more important to provide for our inchoate safety from unproven crimes than risk the possibility that some retarded guy might have a life?

H/T Pogo was Right

3 thoughts on “The Intellectually Disabled Cannot Be Cured

  1. Dissent

    I really don’t understand how they get away with this. This is “guilty until proven innocent” or “guilty until we’re not scared of you anymore, because we’re ignorant about you or your diagnosis.”

    Where are the advocacy groups and constitutional challenges?

    BTW, in one case where I was asked to review psychologists’ and staffs’ analyses of an institutionalized person’s “disruptive” or “problematic” behavior, I found that staff was actually *inducing* the disruptive behavior, i.e., the man was never physically aggressive until they applied an incorrect behavior management plan to his verbal behavior. That experience opened my eyes about institutional reports on behavior. I would suggest defense attorneys try to get an independent review of behavior logs and records by someone with genuine expertise in behavior analysis. Yes, I know PDs may not have such resources, but it might help demonstrate that “problem behaviors” being used to justify continued incarceration are due to mishandling of the individual.

    Of course, that’s an aside, because the real issue is courts abusing an individual’s inability to participate in their defense as an opportunity to lock the person away for even longer than if they had actually been convicted by a jury.

    It’s all backwards, isn’t it…

    1. SHG Post author

      Where are the advocacy groups and constitutional challenges?

      For the indigent, there is no one. Their family, if they have anyone, lack the wherewithal to get a lawyer. PDs are overwhelmed already. Advocacy groups are . . . I really don’t know.

      They are alone, without anyone to advocate for them. Some of the most vulnerable and helpless in society, and they are without anyone to help them. But they shouldn’t need to have advocates, but for this inane set of rules that creates an impossible dilemma. So yeah, it’s all backwards.

      1. Dissent

        About 15-20 years ago, I tried to assist a FL advocacy org working on involuntary commitments – but those weren’t cases involving criminal charges.

        On days like this, I wish I was retired so I could really work on advocacy issues like this one. In the meantime, I’ll try to research a bit to see what NAMI and other orgs have tried, or not tried, to do.

        Thanks for raising awareness of this outrage, Scott.

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