Abstract

The need for a comprehensive range of services for persons with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities who enter the criminal justice system has been well-established. However, such services are unavailable to most offenders with developmental disabilities. Here we describe the services of one agency devoted to this population. Established in 1990, this agency has provided education and training to over 1,500 professionals, answered over 1,000 information and referral questions, and provided direct services to over 600 offenders with developmental disabilities. Recommendations for developing and implementing similar programs are offered. Areas addressed include assessing need, funding, composition of boards of directors, program philosophy, selection of program services, staffing, the referral process, and program evaluation.

Editor in charge: Marty Wyngaarden Krauss

The difficulties and disadvantages facing persons with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities who enter the criminal justice system have been well-documented (Biklen, 1977; Ellis & Luckasson, 1985; Perske, 1990; Petersilia, 1997; Santamour, 1986). Offenders with developmental disabilities are often manipulated into criminal activity by people they believe to be their friends. They are more likely to be arrested because they may not try to hide their crimes. They may not understand their Miranda rights. They are more likely to confess to crimes they did not commit in order to please law enforcement officials. They are more likely to provide incriminating evidence and are less successful in plea bargaining. Many are perceived to be poor risks for bail during the pretrial phase or for probation if convicted because they frequently do not have a stable work history or adequate living arrangements. Those sent to prison have a more difficult period of adjustment and are unlikely to participate in prison-based habilitation programs. They are likely to be imprisoned longer because of rule infractions and difficulties developing release plans. Finally, the presence of mental retardation and other developmental disabilities often goes unnoticed by police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and jail and prison officials. Petersilia (1997) summarized their involvement in the criminal justice system:

It appears that offenders with MR [mental retardation] do more time, do harder time, get less out of their time, and are more likely to be returned to prison after release than persons who are not mentally handicapped. Clearly, this situation is intolerable. (p. 362)

Over the last 3 decades, a number of programs have been created to help offenders with developmental disabilities contend with these circumstances. Most programs provide one or more of a range of services, including education and training, information and referral, and direct services to offenders with developmental disabilities and their families (Maschella, 1986). Because criminal justice personnel typically have limited or inaccurate knowledge of mental retardation and other developmental disabilities, education and training of these individuals are important steps in making improvements for offenders with developmental disabilities (Ellis & Luckasson, 1985; Everington & Luckasson, 1989; Exum, Turnbull, Martin, & Finn, 1992; Lustig, 1998; Messinger & Davidson, 1992; Wood & White, 1992). Because formal education and training cannot address all issues, it is also important to provide information and referral services on an as-needed basis to professionals, clients, and their families (Wood & White, 1992). In addition, some offenders with developmental disabilities can benefit from direct advocacy and case-management services (Biklen, 1997; Bonnie, 1990; Everington & Luckasson, 1989). Such direct services can be provided at both the pretrial and postdispositional stages of the judicial process (Lustig, 1998). These services may include educating clients and their families about the judicial process; working together with clients and their attorneys; linking clients with needed medical, psychiatric, or social services; transporting clients to appointments; and many other activities.

Despite the demonstrated needs of offenders with developmental disabilities and the availability of a limited number of model programs (e.g., Lustig, 1998; Wood & White, 1992), most communities in the United States still do not have special services for this population. To help guide communities in creating programs, we describe the start-up and ongoing operation of Options for Justice, Inc., a private, nonprofit agency located in St. Louis, Missouri, that provides a comprehensive range of services to criminal justice and social service personnel and to offenders with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities and their families. Services include education and training, information and referral, and advocacy and case management. Options for Justice was created in 1990 and is funded by two county-based developmental disability boards. Agency staff members have, to date, conducted formal education and training sessions with over 1,500 people, fielded over 1,000 information and referral questions, and provided direct services to over 600 offenders with developmental disabilities.

In this article we first outline the development of Options for Justice. Then, each of the agency's three service types and the clients it serves are described. Next, important implementation issues are discussed, including funding, the referral process, staffing, and evaluation and research. Finally, recommendations are provided to help guide the development of programs for offenders with developmental disabilities in other cities. We drew upon four information sources: the professional literature and special reports related to offenders with developmental disabilities, Options for Justice documents, interviews with the current Options for Justice executive director and individuals involved with its start-up, and an Options for Justice evaluation report (Linhorst, Bennett, & McCutchen, 1999).

Agency Development

Agency Start-Up

Options for Justice was not the first program in St. Louis designed to work with offenders who have developmental disabilities. In 1976, the Special Offenders Council, a private, nonprofit agency, was created following an extensive needs assessment (Cheatham & Schwartz, 1976; Schwartz, 1982). However, the agency closed after the expiration of their 5-year federal grant. Based in part on the accomplishments of the Special Offenders Council, in 1990 the Productive Living Board for St. Louis County Citizens With Developmental Disabilities funded another assessment of the need for services for offenders with developmental disabilities. Missouri statute enables individual counties to levy a local property tax assessment to fund services for persons with developmental disabilities. The Productive Living Board receives these local tax dollars for St. Louis County and funds residential and vocational services through over 50 local agencies that benefit almost 5,000 persons each year. The Board needs assessment consisted of findings of two focus groups that were comprised of representatives from criminal justice and social service agencies. They learned that offenders with developmental disabilities in the St. Louis area continued to fare poorly in the criminal justice system, service provision to this group was fragmented within both the criminal justice and social service systems, and no single agency or group of agencies was willing to provide the range of services needed by this group.

Given these findings, the Productive Living Board decided to fund a program as a special project within the Productive Living Board that would serve offenders with developmental disabilities who were residents of St. Louis County. They created an advisory committee to guide program development, which consisted of members from both the criminal justice and social service communities, most of whom had participated in the needs assessment focus groups. After 2 years, the Productive Living Board funded the service as a separate agency because of the belief that the services needed to be independent of both the criminal justice and social service systems. A nonprofit corporation was established in 1994 as Options for Justice, Inc. Later, in 1994, Options for Justice expanded services to St. Louis City, with funding provided by the St. Louis Office for Mental Retardation and Developmental Disability Resources, the St. Louis City equivalent of the Productive Living Board.

Board of Directors

The program founders made a deliberate effort to develop a board of directors that included representatives from both St. Louis City and County and from the criminal justice and social service systems. Current members include the local community relations officer, state probation and parole; the lead state public defender, St. Louis County district; the deputy director, St. Louis County Department of Justice Services; the commissioner of corrections, St. Louis City; the director of quality assurance, St. Louis Regional Center, Division of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, Missouri Department of Mental Health (DMH); the first assistant prosecutor, St. Louis County; a police captain with the municipality in which Options for Justice resides; the director, St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy; the executive director of a private agency that provides residential services to persons with developmental disabilities; and a fund raiser. This diversity of members helps to increase awareness of offenders with developmental disabilities and is crucial for opening doors for the agency within both the criminal justice and social service systems.

Agency Philosophy

Since Options for Justice began, its mission has been to hold offenders with developmental disabilities responsible for their actions, while at the same time advocating for fair and equitable treatment for them. An alternative position could have been to secure special treatment for offenders with developmental disabilities throughout the criminal justice process. For example, Laski (1992) called for state legislatures to enact legislation that would require courts to grant probation to offenders with developmental disabilities unless imprisonment was necessary to protect the public from the defendant committing further serious crimes. From the limited number of programs reviewed, it appears that programs typically seek to hold offenders with developmental disabilities personally responsible for actions. With regard to one program, Gardner and Krauss (1982) stated that “an essential philosophical statement . . . is that clients assume responsibility for their actions” (p. 363). Another program “is based upon the philosophy that most adults and juveniles with mental retardation who break the law have a ‘right’ to be arrested” (Wood & White, 1992, p. 54). It is within a context of personal responsibility that Options for Justice and other programs seek to gain fair and equal treatment within the criminal justice system for offenders with developmental disabilities.

Options for Justice Services

Education and Training

Options for Justice offers formal education and training to persons within both the criminal justice and social service systems. The executive director of the agency is the primary trainer. In 1999, for example, he conducted 14 three-hour training sessions. He provided training to police recruits on an ongoing basis at the St. Louis City and County police academies and to existing police officers in both jurisdictions as part of their continuing education requirements. In addition, he has provided training to judges, attorneys, probation and parole officers, St. Louis area jail personnel, and to selected groups in the social service community. The executive director believes that the provision of training to police officers is the single most important function of the agency because police serve as gatekeepers to the criminal justice system.

The content of training provided by Options for Justice typically includes the nature of developmental disabilities, how to identify persons with such disabilities, how the disability relates to the commission of the crime and to participation in the criminal justice process, steps in the criminal justice process, how to interact with other types of professionals, and many other issues. Training content is modified based upon the needs and experiences of the group being addressed. For example, police officers receive extensive information about mental retardation and other developmental disabilities that they can directly apply in their day-to-day work (e.g., when questioning or arresting someone with a developmental disability), whereas social service staff receive more information about the criminal justice system and how to assist their clients maneuver through it. The content of the training and education provided by Options for Justice is similar to materials developed by others (The Arc, 2000; Kennedy, Goodman, Day, & Griffin, 1982; Montgomery, 1982; Santamour, 1989; Santamour & West, 1979).

Information and Referral

Options for Justice staff members field about 100 information and referral telephone calls each year that are unrelated to a specific client that Options for Justice currently serves or may serve in the future. Such calls often come from family or friends of persons with developmental disabilities and professionals who live outside of the service area but who want more information about developmental disabilities, the criminal justice system, or services they may be able to access in their own geographic area. To facilitate timely responses to incoming calls, the executive director and all four direct-service staff are trained to answer such questions.

Direct Client Assistance

Direct services are provided to Options for Justice clients by case coordinators. These staff members have at minimum a bachelor's degree and one year of experience in either the criminal justice or social service systems. Case coordinators provide services to offenders with developmental disabilities at both the pretrial and postdispositional stages of the judicial process. During the pretrial phase, the case coordinator typically educates staff members from the criminal justice system about the client's disability, provides information and documentation to the court about the client's disability, educates the client and his or her family about each phase of the legal process as the case develops, makes recommendations for alternative sentencing as requested, initiates a collaboration among community providers involved with the client, and conducts other activities as needed. During the postdisposition phase, the case coordinator typically assesses the client's needs, makes referrals to community services, educates the social service agencies about the client's legal status and how they can support the client, assists the client in meeting community appointments, initiates a collaboration among community providers involved with the client, and provides other services as needed. Through July 1, 1998, the Options for Justice direct client assistance program had worked with 558 clients. Most typically, these clients were young, African American males diagnosed with mental retardation. Over half had convictions prior to entering the program and about two thirds had committed a felony as the crime for which they were referred to the agency. Table 1 provides a detailed description of these 558 Options for Justice clients.

Table 1

Description of Options for Justice Clients (N = 558)

Description of Options for Justice Clients (N = 558)
Description of Options for Justice Clients (N = 558)

As part of the helping process, the Options for Justice case coordinator and the client complete an Individual Justice Plan. This plan is developed by the case coordinator following an extensive assessment of the client's history and service needs. Areas typically addressed in the Individual Justice Plan include employment, individual or family counseling; finances; housing; independent living skills; medical, psychiatric, or substance abuse treatment; social/recreational activities; transportation; and education. In addition, the plan incorporates conditions of probation or parole to help clients focus on being successful in the community. Plans such as this are used in similar programs (Gardner, Graeber, & Machkovitz, 1998; Lustig, 1998; Morton, Hughes, & Evans, 1986).

Persons with developmental disabilities have diverse needs (Drotar & Sturm, 1996), and offenders with developmental disabilities have not fully used community resources (Maschella, 1986). Options for Justice clients had limited contact with social service agencies before entering this program, with only 21% having had contact with the local DMH Regional Center. Similarly, Beilin (1982) reported that only one third of eligible offenders from the program she described had had prior contact with her state's Regional Centers. According to Options for Justice staff members, clients' greatest needs are for housing, substance abuse treatment, and employment services that are appropriate for offenders with developmental disabilities.

Clients participate in Options for Justice on both a voluntary and involuntary basis. The agency prefers that client participation be part of the conditions of probation or parole. The courts' willingness to do this has increased as Options for Justice has gained credibility with members of the criminal justice system. Most clients who participate voluntarily with Options for Justice enter the program after the establishment of their conditions of probation or parole. However, other programs typically require that program participation be included as a condition of probation or parole (Lustig, 1998; Wood & White, 1992). A possible advantage of voluntary participation is that clients accepted into the program are more self-motivated to take advantage of services, although the Options for Justice executive director has observed that even voluntary clients are sometimes reluctant to change life-long behaviors. A potential disadvantage of voluntary participation is a high dropout rate. For example, of the 252 Options for Justice clients who received services during the postdisposition stage and who had their cases closed by July 1, 1998, only 52% continued with the program until they received all services indicated on their Individual Justice Plan.

Implementation Issues

Funding

Funding of programs for offenders with developmental disabilities is perhaps the greatest challenge to the creation of a comprehensive range of services available to all such offenders (Morton et al., 1986). As previously noted, two counties fund Options for Justice from a special local tax that is designated for persons with developmental disabilities. To date, the agency has been unsuccessful in broadening its funding base with private funds or public sources from the criminal justice or social service communities.

A variety of public and private organizations have funded services for offenders with developmental disabilities. Some programs have been financially supported by criminal justice agencies, including special probation and parole services and prison-based programs (DeSilva, 1980; Hall, 1992; Petersilia, 1997; Pugh, 1986; Walters, 1982). Other programs have been funded by agencies that provide services for persons with developmental disabilities, including state-run Planning Councils on Developmental Disabilities (DeMoll, 1992; Morton et al., 1986); Regional Centers operated or funded by state departments of mental health/developmental disabilities (Beilin, 1982); some state chapters of the National Association of Protection and Advocacy (DeMoll, 1992; Reed, 1982); and the The Arc of the United States, which has taken a leadership role in advocating for offenders with developmental disabilities and developing special programs in selected areas (The Arc, 2000; DeMoll, 1992; Lustig, 1998; Petersilia, 1997). Finally, other programs are jointly funded and operated by interagency agreement (Gardner & Krauss, 1982). Probably the best known collaborative program is the Mentally Retarded Offenders Program, located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which has a team of specially trained probation and parole officers and case managers working together to assist offenders with developmental disabilities to complete probation and parole (White & Wood, 1986; Wood & White, 1992).

Staffing

Staffing of programs will depend on the type and amount of services provided. As noted earlier, Options for Justice has an executive director, who serves as the administrator and primary trainer; four case coordinators who provide the advocacy and case management services directly with clients and their families; and an administrative assistant. This combination allows the agency to provide the broad array of services recommended for offenders with developmental disabilities, including education and training, information and referral, and direct services. Smaller programs may have to limit their scope of services. For example, one program had a law enforcement liaison officer who was housed at the county jail (Beilin, 1982). A larger program focused on legal advocacy and included an attorney and a paralegal, four court advocates, a psychologist, a rehabilitation specialist, and a training coordinator and co-instructor (Maschella, 1986).

Options for Justice has found that working effectively in both the criminal justice and social service systems requires individuals with specialized skills, who are difficult to find. In less than 2 years after starting the agency, the program had had three directors. The current director had experience in both systems, first as a vocational rehabilitation counselor and later as a probation officer. In hiring case coordinators, Options for Justice gives preference to candidates with criminal justice experience in order to facilitate the referral process and effectively communicate with staff from the criminal justice system. In fact, the case coordinator with the most tenure had been a probation/parole officer and has a family member with mental retardation.

Referral Process

Obtaining client referrals is complicated because developmental disabilities often goes undetected as offenders enter and proceed through the criminal justice system (Everington & Luckasson, 1989; Hall, 1985; McAfee & Gural, 1988; McGee & Menolascino, 1992). Consequently, special efforts must be made to identify offenders with developmental disabilities, particularly during the arrest and booking process. Options for Justice training and education of criminal justice personnel aids with identification. Another means to identify offenders with developmental disabilities has been to modify the interview questionnaire in the jail booking process to include a limited number of questions to help identify them. Options for Justice was successful in adding questions to the St. Louis County booking process, including “Have you ever been in special education?” and “Do you receive SSI or a monthly check?” The Options for Justice executive director estimated that the addition of these two questions increased the number of referrals from St. Louis County by 25%. This approach has been used by other programs. For example, another program added the following questions that increased referral by 10%: “Have you ever been in special classes in school? Have you ever been told you are retarded? Have you ever been in a workshop? Have you ever been in a state hospital?” (Beilin, 1982, p. 467). This means of identification has its limitations because of attempts by offenders to hide their condition and because many arrestees are not jailed. As a result, work with police, public defenders, and other criminal justice personnel is still needed.

Participation in Options for Justice and other similar private, nonprofit programs depends on referrals from other organizations (Beilin, 1982; Morton et al., 1986). The majority of client referrals to Options for Justice have been made by criminal justice agencies, primarily from probation and parole officers and social services departments within criminal justice agencies. Only 18% of referrals were from mental retardation/social service agencies. Client self-referrals or referrals from friends or family accounted for 21%, although it is expected that most private referrals were made at the suggestion of criminal justice or social service agencies. Table 1 includes more detailed referral information.

Not all clients referred to programs devoted to offenders with developmental disabilities will meet eligibility criteria. The number of referrals of eligible clients to Options for Justice has greatly increased in recent years as referral sources became more familiar with Options for Justice requirements, and their knowledge of mental retardation and other developmental disabilities increased. During 1999, approximately 10% of clients referred to Options for Justice were ineligible for services, most typically because they did not have a developmental disability or they lived outside of the service area. One program that placed a specially trained worker from a Regional Center in an office located in Los Angeles County jail indicated that 41% of the offenders referred to her were ineligible for services during the early years of that program (Beilin, 1982).

Evaluation and Research

It is widely recognized that a lack of systematic evaluation and research exists about offenders with developmental disabilities (Maschella, 1986; McGee & Menolascino, 1992; Noble & Conley, 1992). The first step in remedying this is the development of effective data-collection and program-evaluation systems (Maschella, 1986; Noble & Conley, 1992). Such systems should include measures of both process and outcomes. This allows programs to evaluate their effectiveness, improve their service delivery, and contribute to the identification of best practices in working with offenders with developmental disabilities.

Like many human service agencies, Options for Justice did not develop a comprehensive program evaluation system when the agency began. However, 2 years ago, the agency received a grant and technical assistance from a local university to develop an ongoing, internal program evaluation system and to conduct a preliminary outcome evaluation. The findings from the outcome evaluation are currently being prepared for publication. A limited number of programs serving offenders with developmental disabilities report client outcomes, typically rearrests, but these reports lack specification of the evaluation design, operational definitions of important variables, descriptions of clients, and other important details (Gardner & Krauss, 1982; Lustig, 1998; Schnapp, Nguyen, & Johnson, 1996; White & Wood, 1986; Wood & White, 1992). This lack of systematic information calls into question the reliability and validity of their findings and does not permit a comparison of results.

Recommendations

A number of lessons can be learned from the experience of Options for Justice and other programs that provide services to offenders with developmental disabilities. First, the need for special services for this population in the target community should be clearly established. The extensiveness of the needs assessment may depend, in large part, on the requirements of potential funding sources.

Second, a continuing funding base needs to be established. A wide range of funding sources should be considered. Examples exist of special programs for offenders with developmental disabilities being funded by criminal justice agencies, social service/developmental disability agencies, and a combination of the two.

Third, persons from both the criminal justice and social service systems should be involved in all aspects of program start-up and be included on advisory boards or boards of directors. Representatives should include a command-level police officer, an administrator from probation/parole, a head public defender, a high-level prosecuting attorney, an administrator from the state department of developmental disabilities, directors of private agencies that are likely to serve the target population, and a representative from the funding source(s) if not represented elsewhere. This diversity can broaden support for the program, facilitate referrals, and lessen barriers to program implementation when it cuts across systems.

Fourth, the program should develop a philosophy that all parties can support. Typically, this decision involves deciding on whether special treatment for offenders with developmental disabilities should be sought or the program should advocate for just and fair treatment while holding offenders responsible for their actions. Most programs, including Options for Justice, have advocated for the latter.

Fifth, programs will need to select which services they will offer. This decision will depend on the identified need, the amount of funding, and other factors.

Sixth, a decision is needed as to whether clients' participation in the program should be voluntary or included in conditions of probation or parole. This will depend, in part, on whether the program is involved with the client at the time that conditions of probation and parole are written. Options for Justice prefers to include participation in probation/parole conditions but also accepts clients after conditions already have been set.

Seventh, whenever possible, staff members should be selected who have experience in the criminal justice systems and with persons who have developmental disabilities. When both are not possible, staff members need extensive training in the area in which they lack experience.

Eighth, a primary step in obtaining client referrals is to assist criminal justice agencies to identify offenders with developmental disabilities. This can occur through training of criminal justice personnel, the inclusion of special questions on intake forms, and other ways.

Ninth, it is important for staff members to develop close working relationships with staff from organizations that potentially could provide referrals. This has been done by hiring staff members who previously had worked at referring programs, through training and education of criminal justice and social service staff, through relationships initiated by board members, and in other ways.

Finally, programs should develop internal program evaluation systems. To be useful, they do not necessarily have to be expensive or time-consuming to maintain. They are essential for measuring program outcomes and improving program performance.

Conclusion

The need for a comprehensive range of services for persons with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities who enter the criminal justice system has been well-established. However, such services are unavailable to most such offenders. Although communities face substantial obstacles to developing programs for this group, the examples provided by Options for Justice and other programs offer hope and direction to others who are willing to invest the effort to help offenders with developmental disabilities achieve fair and equitable treatment in the criminal justice system.

NOTE: The authors thank the Emmett J. and Mary Martha Doerr Center for Social Justice Education and Research in the School of Social Service at Saint Louis University for their support of this research. In addition, the authors recognize the contributions to this article made by the following individuals: Sarijane Freiman, who was instrumental in starting Options for Justice; Jeffrey Bassin and Diane Bush, Productive Living Board staff members who have served as liaisons to Options for Justice, and Michael Maguire, Options for Justice executive director.

Table 1

Continued

Continued
Continued

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Author notes

Authors:  Donald M. Linhorst, PhD, Assistant Professor (linhorsd@SLU.EDU), Leslie Bennett, MSW, and Tami McCutchen, MSW, Graduate Students, School of Social Service, Saint Louis University, 3550 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63103. Requests for reprints and more information about Options for Justice should be directed to Michael Maguire, Executive Director, Options for Justice, Inc., 200 S. Hanley, Suite 207, St. Louis, MO 63105.