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Criminal Justice

State/local governments, including their criminal justice agencies, must comply with the ADA. They may not discriminate against or exclude people with disabilities, and they must give people with disabilities equal opportunities and benefits as those given to people who do not have disabilities.

This can include, among other things, modifying policies, practices, and procedures, providing physical access to buildings, and providing communication aids and services, to ensure that people with disabilities can fully participate in all aspects of the criminal justice process.

The term criminal justice is wide-ranging. Here are some examples of criminal justice agencies, criminal justice professionals and their duties:

Examples of Criminal Justice Agencies:

  • Law Enforcement
  • Criminal Courts
  • Prisons and Jails

Examples of Criminal Justice Professionals:

  • Police Officers
  • Sheriff’s Deputies
  • Detectives
  • Criminal Investigators
  • District Attorneys
  • Public Defenders
  • Criminal Court Employees
  • Criminal Court Judges
  • Officers, Managers, and Medical Staff in prisons and jails
  • Parole Officers

Examples of Criminal Justice Duties:

  • Conducting traffic stops
  • Providing 911 emergency services
  • Arresting, booking, holding, or interrogating individuals who have been arrested
  • Interviewing witnesses
  • Conducting criminal hearings, motions, and trials
  • Housing and managing people who are incarcerated in prisons or jails

The ADA affects virtually everything that criminal justice agencies do. For example, criminal justice agencies must:

  • Make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures where needed to make sure that a person with a disability can access their programs, services, and activities.
  • Follow specific standards for physical accessibility when building or altering a building or facility.
  • Provide program access by ensuring that individuals with disabilities are not excluded from programs because existing buildings or facilities are inaccessible to them.
  • Communicate with people with disabilities as effectively as they communicate with others.

You can find examples and limitations to these requirements and how they look in practice below.

Reasonable Modifications

Criminal justice agencies and their employees must reasonably modify their policies, practices, and procedures to avoid discriminating against people with disabilities.

Examples of Reasonable Modifications:

  • Handcuffing a person who is deaf in front of the body instead of behind the body so that they may communicate using sign language or by writing notes.
  • Having someone with an intellectual disability repeat back each sentence of their Miranda rights in their own words to make sure that these rights are understood.

Sometimes a Modification is Not Required

Criminal justice agencies do not have to make modifications that would fundamentally alter the program or service being provided.

More about what fundamental alteration means?

A fundamental alteration is something that would change the essential nature of the entity’s program or services.

Architectural Access

The ADA’s regulation and the ADA Standards for Accessible Design explain the ADA’s requirements for providing architectural access to, and within, buildings. What standard applies depends on when the building was built or altered. The “ADA Requirements: Effective Date and Compliance Date” explains which standards apply.

Access to Programs and Services, and Activities in Existing Facilities

Criminal justice agencies must make their programs, services, and activities accessible. This does not necessarily require the building itself to be accessible. They can meet this obligation in a variety of ways. Here are some examples:

Access Scenario Possible Solution
A criminal courthouse built in 1887 has a courtroom on the second floor and there is no elevator. The person on trial uses a wheelchair. The court can make the trial accessible by holding it in a courtroom on the first floor or in another building that is wheelchair accessible.

"Because the courthouse was built before 1992, it is not required to put in an elevator. Instead, it must make its program – in this case, the trial – accessible."

A person with a mobility disability tries to access a police station to file a police report. The station has not been altered since before the ADA was passed and has stairs and narrow doorways that make it inaccessible. Police officers could provide curb-side reporting services.

Effective Communication

Criminal justice agencies must make sure they communicate effectively with people who have communication disabilities. There is no “one-size-fits-all” definition of “effective communication.” For example, sign language is not effective for a person who is deaf if the person does not know sign language. Criminal justice agencies should provide communication aids and services so that people with disabilities can participate in their programs, services, and activities.

When deciding what communication aid should be provided, primary consideration should be given to the aid or service requested by the person with the hearing disability. Criminal justice agencies may not charge persons with disabilities for communication aids or services. They can meet their obligations in a variety of ways. Here are some examples:

Communication Scenario Possible Solution
A state prison provides pay phones for the inmates to use, inmates with communication disabilities request access to phones that will allow them to communicate with their attorneys. A state prison may need to provide a TTY or access to a qualified sign language interpreter to enable incarcerated persons who are deaf or hard of hearing to communicate with their attorneys.
A person who is deaf is pulled over by a local law enforcement officer. The law enforcement agency provided paper and pen to the officer to communicate with the driver the reason the driver was pulled over and to answer any questions the driver might have.

The law enforcement agency must provide communication aids that enable the officer to communicate effectively with the person being arrested.

Sometimes a Communication Aid or Service is Not Required

Criminal justice agencies do not have to provide aids and services if providing them would place an undue burden on them.

More about what undue burden means

An undue burden means a significant difficulty or expense. Whether something is a significant difficulty or expense will vary from government to government and may vary from year to year.

Criminal justice agencies also do not have to provide communication aids or services that would fundamentally alter the criminal justice program or service being provided.

More about what fundamental alteration means

A fundamental alteration is something that would change the essential nature of the entity’s programs or services.

If an aid or service would result in an undue burden or fundamental alteration, the criminal justice agency must provide an alternative aid or service if possible.

Learn more about these requirements and limitations in ADA Requirements: Effective Communication, Communicating Effectively with People with Disabilities and Communicating with People Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: ADA Guide for Law Enforcement Officers.

Learn more about the ADA and Criminal Justice

The following technical assistance documents contain more information about criminal justice and can be found at ada.gov: